Walking through the forest, I was acutely aware of centuries-old oaks, immense ferns, moss, moisture and heavy odours... As with the city, I first approached the forest on a sensual, physical level, attempting to fathom how a tree develops, how it structures its architecture, how light travels through its branches. 1
In Norse mythology, humans are merely trees to whom the gods have granted the breath of life, the ability to walk and a face. The exhibition, Arbor vitae, presents the juxtaposed and overlapping visions of two artists, in their common impulse to give trees a face and even a soul. The title Arbor vitae refers to a part of the brain otherwise known as white matter, which is deployed in a branch-like structure and through which information flows like a whitish sap. This network of branches sprawls just below the grey cortex, which envelops the neural mass we commonly call grey matter. This exhibition is thus a mix of grey and white matter.
For Lorraine Gilbert, the project’s initial intent was to view trees as singular characters and draw their portrait to see them better. Her camera’s eye offers a glimpse of a tree hidden in the forest, another proudly enthroned in a park or yet another, forgotten between a sidewalk and a house. These photographic images invite us to caress the trees’ skins with our eyes and feel the light flowing over their arms.
Christopher Varady-Szabo doesn’t use a camera to reveal what hides beneath a tree’s skin or what flows through its veins. He takes a hands-on approach to the vegetable kingdom, using the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. Watching him draw is like observing a spider weave its thread or interlacing lines of ants forming strange protrusions or unexpected excrescences. His drawings reveal what might be lying hidden under the bark or in the humus. They complement the photographic images by showing us what cannot be revealed by the camera’s eye, which can only view one angle at a time.
In the inextricable forest of art about nature, the paths of these two artists have been crossing for quite some time now. For example, we should mention their contributions to the Boréal Art-Nature artist-run centre, which no longer exists but which blazed new trails linking art in situ with residencies in remote nature. Today, they are together once again at the University of Ottawa, where Lorraine Gilbert teaches photography and where Christopher Varady-Szabo is completing a Master’s in Visual Arts.
Lorraine Gilbert initially studied biology before turning to the arts. She photographed clear-cutting and tree planters. A recent work displayed at the National Gallery of Canada, entitled Once (Upon) a Forest, has a style similar to works by Henri Rousseau, whose approach to nature painting was inventive and inspired by visits to the Jardin des plantes and his readings of botanical scholarly journals.
Christopher Varady-Szabo is originally from Australia, where he probably inherited the instinct for primitive constructions from termites. He has built many lairs and other shelters in the forest. Like gargoyle drool, his organic constructions made of straw and clay seeped their way into furniture and building designs. His recent in situ project at AXENÉO7, Le Puits du Sarlacc, emerged as an outgrowth and parasite of the artistic site: it attacked it from behind and clung to the wall, climbing to the window before imperceptibly invading the entire space with its breath.
Arbor vitae offered Lorraine Gilbert and Christopher Varady-Szabo the challenge to combine their practices to create joint works. Their quest took them around, underneath and within the tree, exploring its barks, roots and branches, opening up new pathways. Where these pathways will lead us remains to be discovered.
Jean-Yves Vigneau, 2012