‘Seeing a Who’ brings together Gateshead based Michael Mulvihill and Pasadena, USA based Elizabeth Saveri, artists who both explore big themes through the medium of miniature paintings and drawings. After Vane, the exhibition will travel to ArtHelix in Brooklyn, USA, in autumn this year.

The exhibition derives its title from the classic children’s book, Horton Hears a Who!, written in 1954 by Theodore Seuss Geisel under the pen name Dr Seuss, which describes the eponymous hero Horton’s struggle to prove against all doubters the existence of another world as small as a speck of dust, and his battle to save it from destruction. The book’s main theme, “a person’s a person no matter how small”, was Geisel’s reaction to his post-war visit to Japan, where putting individual freedom before duty to the state was a new concept. Geisel, who had harboured strong anti-Japan sentiments before and during World War Two, changed his views dramatically after the visit and used his book as an allegory for the American post-war occupation of the country. He dedicated the book to a Japanese friend.

For all its echoes of the twentieth century’s Cold War paranoia and fears of nuclear annihilation, the book’s conclusion is one of hope, with a community coming together to protect the vulnerable, the small and the disregarded. Horton Hears a Who! is a contemporary fable that allows us, if only momentarily, to believe in the power of the common goodness in humanity.

In the works of Michael Mulvihill and Elizabeth Saveri a similar struggle is being waged. As the art world becomes more and more enthralled to the spectacle of scale and production – a process by which art has now come both to signify and mirror the ‘effects’ of capitalism – these two artists have instead distanced themselves as a form of protest that is at once both formal, and personal.

Michael Mulvihill’s miniature drawings – including urban landscapes, military installations, nuclear explosions, and portraits of scientists and politicians – are charged with a sense of foreboding, intensified by his underlying themes. Drawing on childhood memories of the threat of nuclear war during the 1980s, his fascination with the political landscape of the Cold War and its aftermath, and the co-opting of art and science to the furtherance of the military-industrial combine that fuelled the arms race between East and West, Mulvihill’s drawings act as signposts to this territory of conflict. The diminutive scale of the works functions to reinforce the human dimension – the response of the lone individual in the face of the ever-present fear of the fragility of shifting global relationships.

Michael Mulvihill’s The Means and the Instruments series includes graphite drawings of residential housing in towns along the North Sea coast of Britain, an area that has long been heavily militarized for defence against invasion from the sea. The drawings shift between real homes that are potentially vulnerable and buildings disguised as domestic houses that are, in reality, used for covert operations by NATO and intelligence agencies. The series explores how the activities of militarism permeate the everyday environment.

Elizabeth Saveri’s recent work also alludes to potential impending disaster – that of environmental catastrophe. Her tiny oil paintings are painstakingly rendered on the plastic tags from supermarket bread. The Twentynine Palms series takes its name from the city in the southern Mojave Desert in California. The city was originally founded on the Oasis of Mara that had long been a precious water source for the indigenous Serrano people. In Serrano legend, the oasis was surrounded by a stand of 29 palm trees. Whilst the location is gateway to the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, it is also home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, and is one of the biggest military training areas in the USA.

The California Landscape series depict Napa, Los Angeles, the Central Valley, Catalina Island, and other areas around Saveri’s home state. Like the Twentynine Palms, this series deals with loss and environmental degradation. The ‘paradise’ that California used to be is being radically changed by overdevelopment and the resultant drought caused by overuse of the water supply. By painting the natural habitat and the palm trees symbolic of the state on ubiquitous bread tags, Saveri presents us with a paradise that has turned sour – one in which our increasingly urbanised and artificial environment is threatening the very existence of the natural world, and ultimately leading to our own extinction.

Elizabeth Saveri was born in San Francisco, USA, in 1965, and lives in Pasadena, USA. She studied at Wesleyan University, Middletown (1987-90), and the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena (1990-95). Solo exhibitions include ‘The Trees on my Block’, Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena (2010), ‘Elizabeth Saveri’, Shane Campbell, Chicago (2008), ‘Domestic Flow’, Hudson Franklin, New York (2005) and ‘Chronicle of Daily Wanderings”, Susanne Vielmetter / Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles (2003). Recent group exhibitions include ‘Farewell, Eden’, Sturt Haaga Gallery, Descanso Gardens, La Cañada (2016), ‘R.S.V.P. Los Angeles: The Project Series at Pomona’, The Pomona Art Museum, Claremont (2015), ‘The Modest Sublime’, ArtHelix, Brooklyn (2013), ‘Modesty: A Policy’, Bogart Salon, Brooklyn, ‘Obscured Lines’, Los Angeles Valley College Art Gallery, Los Angeles (2012) and ‘Rebus’, Amelia Museum of Art, Umbria, Italy (2009). Saveri has received the City of Pasadena Individual Art Grant, Pasadena (2010), the Art Matters National Grant, New York (1995), and undertaken a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine (1994).