The woods, dark and cool, have long exercised a palpable force on the human psyche and are assocated with a range of often contradictory meanings. A beckoning place of great proportion, the deep woods can evoke feelings of mystery, dread, and fear of the unknown (“To the woods! Oh, no, not to the woods!” or Little Red Riding Hood’s travails), or can be a site of sanctuary, mysticism, and awe (California’s redwoods, Italy’s ancient Basco Sacro, or the medieval Sherwood Forest). The mythological rings of meaning encircling these sylvan backlands are boundless.
The drawings, digital video, and photo-based work of Rich Barlow and Regan Golden simultaneously undercut and address the iconic status—and power—of the woods, adding yet another (contradictory?) ring to its meaning and mythology. The works on display in their joint show The Sylvan Screen, at the Johnson Gallery through March 28, bring into question what we assume we understand about the woods—whether their danger, mystery, or sacredness.
In his Cover series, from which 36 works are on view at Bethel, Barlow tests our reading of the woods, and landscape in general (he includes seascapes), and also memory. Nodding to the work of 19th century pictorial photographers (Henry Fox Talbot) and their discovery of the light sensitive material silver bromide, Barlow applies layers of silver leaf to vellum, each to album-cover scale, depicting a landscape image appropriated from various actual album covers. However, each “cover” has been drained of any indentifying information- text, artist, or visual detail. We are left with a landscape in silhouette, a landscape flattened, reflective, and constantly shifting as we shift viewpoints. The eye strains to identify the images’ elements and, for music buffs, the album itself. Something understood and remembered as so common is now out of reach. Where the deep woods is metaphorically and literally about entering, we are now left out, excluded by the flat shimmering and abstract surface. It is neither fearful nor inviting; conceptually it is no more or less than what is offered. It simply is.
Regan Golden has created what amounts to an installation addressing society’s encroachment upon the deep woods in general, and a family tract of 30 acres of land in Western Massachusetts in particular. Employing photography, digital video, drawing, text, and small pitcairns of rock, she constructs an alternative narrative of the endangered woods dear to her heritage.
In Golden’s images and video, the woods are an impossibly vivid green and dense with underbrush to the point of being impassible. Using a sharp tool, she literally cuts into the images, following the contours of branches and tree trunks. The resulting raised edges give a texture to the flat glossy surface and its tactility is irresistible, even to a trained viewer. Similarly, in the video Conversation before a Forest, Golden has slashed the projection screen, further animating the rapid camera movement of someone running (in terror?), evoking the claustrophobic sensation of being directionless, lost in the woods. In two wall panels of text, a simple conversation between two people reinforces the “lost” narrative. Small piles of rock recreate the stone marker points of her family’s land—the edge or the first point of destruction.
In both the images and the video Golden’s cuts are also symbolic of the potential destruction of the forest. If too many cuts are made, the image falls apart—the deep woods disappear. Yet Golden keeps us at the outside, on the surface, as voyeurs, not letting us enter either the physical place or the narrative.