LONDON - Along with Rembrandts and van Goghs, Canadian artist Tim Gardner's work can now be found hanging in the National Gallery in London. The up-and-coming artist is currently receiving a prestigious solo exhibition as part of the British museum's new commitment to young, contemporary artists.

"Being compared to Old Masters, it's a bit of an awkward position to be in," laughs Gardner, 33, over the phone from his home in Victoria, B.C. "The experience has been pretty overwhelming and at times intimidating, exhilarating."

"Tim Gardner: New Works" showcases 20 paintings created by Gardner during and after a three-month residency at the National Gallery in the autumn of 2005. Based on photographs taken during the last 15 years, the new watercolours and pastels depict landscapes like the Manitoba Prairie and the Rockies, as well as less grand Canadian landmarks like the CanWest Mall and a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in suburban Victoria.

It's a departure in subject matter for Gardner, who previously had been working on pastel paintings of commonplace pictures like family portraits, high school graduation photos and hockey team photos. "I'd worked for about a year and a half on these portraits alone in the studio, not paying attention to the outside world," says Gardner, a graduate of the University of Manitoba and Columbia University schools of art. "I was ready to start looking at the world around me again. This work is about getting back out in the landscape."

But Gardner, who grew up accompanying his geography professor father on field trips into the Canadian wilderness, paints a less romanticized picture of Canadians' relationship with nature than the Group of Seven or Emily Carr did. In "Into the Rainbow Vein," named after a song by the Scottish electronica group Boards of Canada, he depicts a baseball-capped youth sleeping on a train oblivious to the rainbow in the sky outside his window. In "Two Men on a Bus," the two men of the title ignore the beautiful mountains their bus is passing.

"Tim Gardner: New Works" also features portraits of the artist's father and brothers, who have long been subjects of his work. "Nick on the Prairie, Facing Into the Wind" and "Tobi on the Red River" are pastel paintings of photographs of his brothers taken outside Winnipeg.

"They find it kind of weird that their pictures are hanging in the National Gallery, but for the most part I think they're OK with it," says Gardner, who first gained an international profile with his photorealistic paintings of young men drinking and partying.

While Gardner's snapshot-based work may seem at odds with the classics of pre-1900 western European art on display elsewhere in the museum, National Gallery curator Christopher Riopelle believes there are strong connections to be found.

"What he is doing, which is absolutely contemporary and North American in subject matter, nonetheless addresses themes that have long been important in the western tradition of painting," says Riopelle, who invited Gardner to be the first artist to participate in the new residency program after seeing a show of his at a London gallery in 2003.

"Working from photographs, he re-examines the portrait tradition, the landscape tradition, social relationships, particularly male friendship - all of these things have figured in western art for centuries," notes Riopelle, who is himself Canadian and has worked at the National Gallery for the past nine years.

Gardner believes he absorbed quite a bit from the months he spent working near the National Gallery's permanent collection. He changed the way he paints skies after hours spent observing the backgrounds of works by artists like Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens and German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich. The influence of French impressionist Claude Monet is also evident in his watercolour "Sunburst Over the Prairie," he says. "Having that freedom to look through the gallery for days and days on end, it was a real luxury," Gardner says of his residency at the 183-year-old British institution located on the northern edge of Trafalgar Square.

Gardner, whose work has been called "profound" by The New Yorker magazine and who was named an artist to watch by Rolling Stone in 2000, has so far been receiving positive reviews for the National Gallery show, his most high-profile exhibition to date. The Evening Standard wrote, "even a picture of a lone KFC bucket might be a thing of beauty in Gardner's hands."

According to the National Gallery, one million people will pass through the museum during the course of the exhibition. "After my show, maybe eventually it will be just a normal thing where young artists show at the National Gallery," says Gardner. "But this, being the first since the renewed interest in contemporary art there, it's kind of a big deal."

"Tim Gardner: New Works" continues at the National Gallery until April 15.