Ending Soon: Green Gothic at Hedreen Gallery

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“Worker #3″ by Rodrigo Valenzuela

The current exhibit at Hedreen Gallery, Green Gothic, takes its title from a 2009 essay by Matthew Offenbacher. The eponymous essay and its themes provide a point of departure for inquiry into the peculiar character of the Pacific Northwest, and the exhibit includes work from five artists of very different stripes who respond to or continue that line of inquiry.

According to Offenbacher, there is a somewhat monstrous character to this region, not overtly malicious but nonetheless sinister and seeking redemption. It is a region of liminal light and states, a confluence of city and wilderness, a sort of crucible where being or becoming a freak is part of one’s survival. Curator Amanda Manitach (who spent her formative years in Texas and the American heartland) found his essay resonant, providing her with one frame of understanding for this region. The essay cites land projects like Richard Haag’s Bloedel Reserve and Gasworks Park as places where nature atones for man’s disruption through a slow and orchestrated decay. Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium is a Frankensteinian ecosystem on life support. The people, too, come to reflect this mortal fecundation, opening with the fictional figures of the Twilight series and closing with a stage-light-blasted image of Kurt Cobain.

It’s a compelling argument—its thesis eo ipso fecund and fringe. The responses by the five artists in the show sometimes feel safe by comparison, but never sterile. Like most group shows, the full effect feels uneven, but it is an admirable attempt to create a dialog about that most abstract of things—the essence of a place and time, namely ours.

Rodrigo Valenzuela’s three short films are mesmerizing and do the most of all the works to reflect the essay while adding a lyrical expression—less monstrous, more melancholy. “Green Noise” brings a little of the wilderness into the space (“as though a window gave upon the sylvan scene”)—brooding foliage teetering on the edge of darkness and songbirds penetrating a silence. In “Train,” rather than going to points of reclamation mentioned in the essay, Valenzuela penetrates into the green, lush heart of the wild via logging cart. This machine and its rails are emblematic of human intrusion into the wild, a path whereby we draw the severed matter of the forest out into our world of fire and industry, but the pervading sense is of peace and balance, of routine and resignation on the part of the operator and the trees that line the path he has taken for decades. “Decision” sees a sunlit male hesitating atop a log before a black and green void, eventually taking the leap into that darkness—plunging into a pond. These are explorations, journeys into what we consider pristine, even Edenic, but the soundtrack and dark density of the images triggers an instinctual dread, however faint.

Valenzuela’s altered photograph “Worker #3″ is a different sort of meditation. The scattered boards (disembodied matter of the trees surrounding them) are haphazard, perhaps a failed shelter. Their lines and angles are counterpoint to the vertical lines of the trees towering overhead and also mimic a fallen giant glimpsed between the first line of trees and the confusion of the immense wilderness beyond. (This and other images in his series can be seen at his solo show at Blindfold Gallery through May 5)

russell

Image courtesy of Hedreen Gallery

In his book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote of the phenomenology of forests, which imply immensity by obscuring it at its depths. This is evident in Valenzuela’s work, and may come to mind readily in looking through the work of Serrah Russell, whose installation “Distant Lover” is informed by the first chapter of Bachelard’s book, “The House: From Cellar to Garret.” Russell has developed a sort of anatomy of three spaces in the form of notes, magazine cuttings and Polaroids with quotes taken directly from Bachelard.

The work feels unfinished and not fully convinced of its cause. In another chapter of The Poetics, Bachelard references “The Golden Bug” by Edgar Allen Poe, an American most Gothic, and regarding Poe’s work he quotes Jean-Pierre Richard: “We shall never reach the bottom of the casket.” This is the sense of bottomless curiosity in small, closed containers filled with objects—a microcosm of forests and the like. There are some lovely and well-chosen images in Russell’s drawers, but one too quickly sees to the bottom and in turn feels that these were places she visited, not inhabited. The drawers containing her snippets should be brimming with matter, and frankly the whole work should not rely so heavily on a book like Bachelard’s. It should be filled with other literature, because instead of feeling like an homage or even a primer, it seems more like someone hit The Poetics with a leaf blower.

Lisa Radon’s compiled tome takes exhaustion as its theme. Radon compiled countless diagrams, essays and reflections on the myths and science of spaces. It might be seen as a pedagogical foil to Bachelard’s phenomenological Poetics, but one cannot really call it a pedagogical work because it is without a instructive narrative or order. It’s placement in the gallery forces one simply to browse through its hundreds of pages. The sense then is that when one exhausts any line of questioning (or at least attempts to exhaust it), the “answer” becomes intimidating and all-consuming to the point of uselessness. I take it as symbolic—an implication that when questioning things of such expanse and abstraction as our own time and place and culture, there will never be a satisfying answer or means of documenting it. Rather, we must content ourselves with the process of trying to learn, find our way out of our own rooms, our own heads, and simply connect.

mudede

Image courtesy of Hedreen Gallery

The other film in the room, “Ontology of Absence,” is a short by Charles Mudede and Adam Sekuler. It seems to refer to another aspect of the Northwest: an abundance of serial killers and simmering hostility. Mudede’s voicless, disembodied narrator speaks in subtitles, is a malignant narcissist, a solipsist (perhaps a sociopath) for whom the Other is most real in absentia. The narrator revels in rather banal, insignificant sensory memories of the Other. As with all true introverts, the interior universe is more real than the exterior. There is no human presence here, only the vaguest insinuation of it—a picnic table to be sat in, a square of lawn not kept pristine but not entirely overgrown.

This rings relevant for a city that is undeniably introverted and has no shortage of sesquipedalian sophists, but the accompanying images fall flat. Taken together, it seems like something salvaged from Chris Marker’s cutting room floor. The minimal, banal but self-important dialog presents a peculiar character and is thus harder to change, as much as it might be improved. However, the location and the drifting camera work feel ad hoc. As banal and dull as the narrator may be, a focus and an attention to detail feeds that hostile ego. The camera gives us nothing of the sort, and that blunts whatever edge the film and its dialog might have had. The bench added as a prop before the projection faces toward the window, away from the film. At the risk of sounding too snarky, I’d say that was one of the wiser choices made for this particular installation.

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Image courtesy of Hedreen Gallery

Offenbacher closed his essay with an examination of the work of Gretchen Bennett, who drew that aforementioned image of Cobain based upon corrupted footage of a music video. Fourteen of her faint, twilit drawings hang on the southern wall and lie pinned on a small dais beneath in an installation called “The Killing,” named after a serialized television show that Bennett used as a reference for these images. They nicely encapsulate a sense of paranoia and liminality that was attempted but seems missing in some of the other works. This is an ambient paranoia—the moment depicted is one of more abject anxiety, but by its faintness becomes a light, vague insinuation of attack that manifests as a constant, low-grade anxiety. This is the urban aspect of the dread one may feel facing Valenzuela’s films—a reminder that the wilderness (that is, the predator) is still with us and always will be.

As the one artist in the show whose work was also discussed in Offenbacher’s “Green Gothic,” Bennett’s work is well chosen as one that is true to the artist’s practice and builds on the themes of the essay. They are hazy, but not muddled. The installation also buoys the message in “Ontology” that flat directing and photography almost sinks. As such, it is a successful group show, wherein a variety of voices respond to a difficult subject, end up with very different perspectives, but still somehow cohere.

Green Gothic is on display at Hedreen Gallery through April 24.