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Inside the Artist’s Studio: Brian Forrest

Inside the Artist’s Studio is an-ongoing series exploring issues  on contemporary art through direct encounters with the artists themselves.

A Radical Arcadia –

“There have always been two kinds of arcadia: shaggy and smooth; dark and light; a place of bucolic leisure and a place of primitive panic”, Simon Schama tells us in Landscape and Memory, one arcadia being “a dark grove of desire, but also a labyrinth of madness and death”. He further describes certain arcadias as purposefully and importantly untamed: “turf, gorse, heather, and timber, trees, shrubs and brushwood” of the heaths outside of 19th century London were a cherished gift to the city dwellers—landscapes of urban imagination that answered certain needs for wildness, even unruliness. In much the same way, one might perceive the unkempt oak filled, scrubby canyons in the vicinity of Los Angeles as critical counterpoint to overdevelopment, neat watered lawns, and perfect patches of park.

Please click on all images to enlarge and for artwork details.

In a series entitled Dusk which debuted this winter at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, photographer Brian Forrest explores in low light the beauty and terror contained in the undeveloped wooded landscapes that surround Los Angeles where he frequently hikes—places named for saints, surveyors or landowners like Santa Ynez, Sullivan, and Decker Canyons, or locations like Los Liones that conjure plentiful mountain lions in earlier times and still creep out hikers at twilight. Forrest displays a number of the large format lightjet digital prints in his sunny Streamline Moderne studio, the brightness being crucial to actually seeing the photographs: the near-monochrome, light sucking pictures appear initially as wall mounted slabs of finely veined black granite or intricate abstract pencil or charcoal drawings that when closely examined, the inky, velvety blacks yield delicate webs of infinite, subtly contrasting grey tones. The wide range in tones results partially from his use of color printing paper with black and white negatives. Only slowly do the bosks, dense foliage, grassy undergrowth, leafy detritus, exposed roots, masses of tangled branches, and dim patches of sky define the photographs as landscapes. There are no orienting horizon lines but in some like Sullivan Canyon #19, looming diagonals at the top tell us we are beneath a mountain. In other photographs, a small space opens beneath the trees to define a path or a streambed.  Often only a faint light beyond the embrangled foreground suggests a way out of the chaos. The overall effect is dreamlike and painterly, like a reverse impressionism in which instead of the scenes being broken into thousands of illuminating dots, we strain to see shapes and outlines emerge from the chiaroscuro before they sink into the night. It is photography driven to the very edge of perception and Forrest immerses us fully within this barely discernible, foreboding, destabilizing, but visually enchanting world. Caught between pleasure and horror—whether to linger in the thickets enjoying the abstract patterns, lacey intertwining lines, and nuanced lightplay  or to extricate ourselves from engulfment and darkness—such images are rife with metaphors: thickets of the mind, death, hope, passage, salvation.

Apart from its deliberate contrasts to conventional, picturesque landscape photography, the Dusk Series with its subject of the untamed forest at the outskirts of civilization is inextricably linked to historical dialogues and current debates about the role of wildness to civilization. Schama explains that in Germany “the forest primeval was the site of tribal self assertion against the Roman Empire of stone and law. In England the greenwood was the place where the king disported his power in the royal hunt yet redressed the injustices of his officers.” In his brilliant study Forests, the Shadow of Civilization, Robert Pogue Harrison details how Western institutions were formed in opposition to the forests. With particular contemporary relevance, he describes the ecological roots of Rome’s destiny, how the destruction of its forests for growing grain irreparably eroded the land and eventually resulted in its ruination. Despite the relentless felling of trees, however, the forest through the centuries importantly remained the site of pagan “alternative and outcast wisdom”, sanctuary of ecstatic Christian mystics, refuge of outlaws and lovers, the “places of weird enchantment” a’ la the Brothers Grimm, the inspiration for poets, philosophers and painters to probe darkness and obscurity, wonder and revelation. So as Romanticism with its emphasis on nature as palliative to and curative of civilization’s ills captivated 19th century thought, Thoreau testified to the reality checking woods of Walden where he wrote “Not until we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves.”  Harrison: …”Thoreau remains most radically American..In America freedom lies just beyond the bounds of the institutional order—a mile from any neighbor in the adjacent woods of Walden…those who would discover America must reenact the original gesture of departure…”  Similarly, in the 20th Century, the forest was central to Heidegger’s philosophy; for him, forest clearings were a metaphor for allowing light into darkness. His forest was a world outside of and differing from urbanization and technology and presented a place to examine one’s conscience.  The essential task was to find one”s way through this metaphorical forest. Many of these ancient legends, myths and Romantic musings continue to resonate in our cultural imagination, and the outsider status of the forest realm is an important symbolic antidote to overwhelming institutional order.

Art history, of course, has provided a wide range of forest imagery, from the Barbizon School and its Forests of Fontainbleau to the 19th Century Hudson River Painters’ renditions of primeval nature. One painting in particular, Thomas Moran’s  Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp (1862), however, bears  considering in relation to Forrest’s photographs.  In the Moran, a fleeing slave couple is wading through a swamp completely surrounded and dwarfed by huge trees and vines, seeking refuge like hunted animals. Escape seems dangerous and life imperiling  as the late afternoon sun wanes. Engaging the viewer’s emotions in this terrifying scene by relying on associations with a sublime natural experience, Moran created one of the most powerful, empathetic, anti-slavery icons of the Civil War period.

What Forrest’s photographs might offer as Moran did, is a locus to rediscover and revisit a radical American resistance to contemporary threats. In these photographs, spatial and object distinctions are imprecise, suspended in a zone between darkness and light with a feeling of timelessness. Submerged in this disordered” outlaw” or “outside” space, true to notions of the sublime experience of being lost or overwhelmed, we begin to reconnect with our senses, bodies, minds, and imaginations – as opposed to the dull responses  barely registered to mind numbing daily life resulting from the excesses of modern technological/hyper capitalistic society. If Globalism, for example, is understood as thriving only when humans are estranged from their individuality, nature, disparate cultures, anxieties, and unique spiritual beliefs, Forrest’s Arcadia of “primitive panic” can be restorative of authenticity in the way that the great forest legends and artworks promoted. In our age, the meditations on self preservation and actualization his photographs invite may help us realize the gravity of Thoreau’s words: “I did not wish to live what was not life.”


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