At Wood Street, Pastoral Noir explores an England real and imagined | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

At Wood Street, Pastoral Noir explores an England real and imagined

The group show heavy on time-based media addresses history, myth and nature

The Terror (After Machen)” (detail), by Tessa Farmer
The Terror (After Machen)” (detail), by Tessa Farmer

Although it contains only six works, it would be difficult to rush through Pastoral Noir: New English Landscapes.

If you’ve ever spent time in the English countryside you can understand why so much literature and art focuses on its mystical, mysterious and enchanting qualities. Poets and painters alike conjure images of cottages, wide leas, mossy stones, glades and bowers, and cliffs above crashing waves. Images both quaint and sinister emerge from a land inhabited by fairies, ghosts and druids.

Curated by Justin Hopper (a former City Paper staffer now based in England), the exhibition is made up mostly of time-based media. A poem, called “The Medicine Earth,” at the second-floor entrance to the exhibition, accompanies one of the longest pieces, a film called “Memorious Earth.” Made by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton, text and image, together with a haunting score, create a portrait of ecological loss but also of hope for renewal and healing.

The film unfolds in real time as a mist slowly engulfs a craggy hillside in the upland landscape where Richardson and Skelton have lived since 2011. Intermittent texts onscreen reveal the etymology of the place, called “Hill of the Wolf.” In 1279 it is Wolfhou, in 1576 Uffay, in 1823 Ulpha, etc.

The artists have made an exhaustive study of the ecology, history, geography and folklore of the region. Mixing styles and sources from herbal texts, glossaries, archeological records and the translations of Old English leechdoms, or cures, phrases from the poem also appear in the film such as “the harmful one that throughout the land roams” and “the patient will be whole again.” The lines are cryptic yet form a sort of recipe or poultice, both elegy and remedy. The pace of the film reminds us to be attentive to what is forgotten or hidden in our natural surroundings.

click to enlarge “Summer Flower Border,” by Tony Heywood and Alison Condie - PHOTO COURTESY OF JOEY KENNEDY
Photo courtesy of Joey Kennedy
“Summer Flower Border,” by Tony Heywood and Alison Condie

“Still,” by Jem Finer, also focuses our awareness upon geologic time and changes in the environment. The work consists of a single large wall projection. At first glance it seems static, but stay awhile and slowly it becomes clear that infinitesimal changes are taking place. And unlike traditional film or video, the piece is not fixed in duration or sequence. Instead, images are randomly selected from an archive of 18,000 taken of the same wooded location, over the course of two years. In the image, one can see a sculptural sound piece by Finer, on a trail at Stour Valley Arts, in Kent. The location stays the same but the light changes, the weather changes, the seasons change and a ghostly figure might come and go.

A counterpoint to nature’s unpredictable flux is the human pursuit of perfection through cultivation. In “Summer Flower Border,” Tony Heywood and Alison Condie have created a “horticultural installation” that considers the colors of cultivated flowers. Using a swatch from the color chart used to classify new species, the artists create a matching paint that they then pour onto canvas and capture on video. The installation combines components both real (anthracite) and artificial (fake flowers, lights, projections, a musical score) that come together to form an alternate portrait of landscape. Resembling a psychedelic grave, the piece combines aspects of abstraction and still life in order to explore changing notions of landscape as well as mimicry and stasis.

Two pieces on the third floor also challenge perceptions and the hierarchies of the natural order. Semiconductor’s “Heliocentric” is a large-scale video installation that places the sun directly at the center of each image. Using time-lapse photography and astronomical tracking, the piece focuses on the reality of earth’s gravitational trajectory around the sun, as opposed to the way we experience it (as the sun rotating around the earth), thus exposing the fallibility of our perception of nature. And in a more fantastical approach, Tessa Farmer reverses the hunter/hunted paradigm. Using natural materials such as insect and crustacean carcasses, bones and plant roots, Farmer’s fantastical hanging diorama “The Terror (After Machen),” depicts armies of bees ridden by tiny skeleton fairies, and swarms of ants, butterflies and beetles attacking birds including a majestic peregrine falcon.

Also unsettling, yet eerily soothing, is the installation by Ghost Box Records entitled “Retrospective 2005-2015.” Here the concept of landscape is less about the natural world than about culture and aesthetics. The artists have created an atmospheric parallel world that conflates elements from several recent decades into a place called Belbury. Experimental films, posters and vitrines filled with books, records, photographs and pamphlets reveal the esoteric folklore of a fictional town that is simultaneously harmonious and discordant.

Pastoral Noir is not as bleak as it sounds. Spend the time to uncover its delights.

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