We feel different in the woods. There are so many trees, so much moisture and life, that the woods have a special effect on our psyches. Woods can comfort us, because we feel remote and peaceful, far from the din of urban life. Or we can feel lost and claustrophobic. In folklore, forests contain epiphanies, sentient animals, dreams, trickery.
Whatever that sylvan sensation is, curator Heather White has given it a name: woodness.
Woodness is a primal little exhibit at UnSmoke Artspace, showcasing a posse of artists from Pittsburgh and elsewhere. The question is refreshingly simple: What do you feel about the woods? In answer, these artists have created the gamut of photos and paintings, installations and video. If you've never visited UnSmoke -- or even Braddock -- before, this is as good an excuse as any. The gallery is built into a repurposed Catholic school, and the voluminous first floor grants artists all the room they could want. Like the Mattress Factory, UnSmoke is big and generous. This is a place where artists can spread out.
One impressive sculpture is "Log Like," by Aris Georgiadis, which is a pile of "logs" composed of plywood. At first, the design seems clever and quaint -- it looks as if Georgiadis has assembled fake tree trunks out of plywood shells. But they aren't shells; to imitate the growth of an actual tree, Georgiadis started with a plywood sapling and wrapped strips of wood around it, so that the "log" shows actual "rings." Georgiadis' felled timber isn't just an easy jab at cheap lumber; he has taken the time to imitate a tree's actual development, and the effect is haunting.
There is a similar illusion in Robin Russo's "Handscape," a photograph of a tree on a grassy hill. But wait -- that's not a hill at all, but human fingers dusted with green powder. The "tree" is an N-scale model, the kind used for miniature railroads, somehow pasted to the human skin. Adjusting to this scene is like seeing the sailboat in Magic Eye posters; we relish figuring out a trick, but we can't go back to not seeing the hand. The pure image of an oak on a hillock is lost forever.
What Woodness artists have in common is their flair for the subconscious. There are no literal, Ansel Adams-style landscapes, with sun poking through branches or rare birds in the bush. Each piece is cerebral, even shamanistic. Matt Barton's untitled sculpture is a mannequin of a cleaning lady. The mannequin has everything -- a broom, rubber gloves, a patterned apron and even a colored headband. But instead of a human face, the sculpture has a taxidermy deer-head. When plugged in, the sculpture moves slightly and makes creepy noises. Like many pieces in Woodness, Barton's cleaning lady is disorienting and sickly funny.
The dreamiest of all is "The Archive of Vagaries," a video installation by Chele Isaac. The eight-minute film opens with tree branches and abstract lighting. We see a road, then headlights, but the film has no center. Then, a character emerges: a humanoid dressed in a white suit. But again the human face has been replaced, in this case by a satanic ram's head. Or is it satanic? The figure plays a folk tune on an archaic stringed instrument while sitting in a dark forest next to a small Yule tree. Isaac's video lies somewhere between Jung and Wicca, and the result is weirdly amusing.
It's fitting that Woodness, and UnSmoke, should find a home in Braddock. A town bullied by industry and neglect is finding new life among its young bohemians. If a run-down old school can house such imaginative works, who knows what other light might be found in the forest?
Woodness continues through Aug. 27. UnSmoke Artspace, 1137 Braddock Ave., Braddock (open by appointment only). www.unsmokeartspace.com.