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'Pastoral Noir' offers new take on British landscapes

| Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, 8:12 p.m.
Jem Finer, STILL, 2011,
Semiconductor, 'Heliocentric', 2010,
Tessa Farmer, 'Marauding Horde' (detail) 2010.
Tony Heywood & Alison Condie, 'Summer Flower Border', 2015,
Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton, 'Memorious Earth', 2015

British landscape painters of the 18th and 19th centuries captured the sublime in nature. They found full expression in the art of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1881).

“Pastoral Noir: New English Landscape,” on display at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, delivers new concepts about landscape and our natural world that challenge those historical notions.

“The idea is to look at the British landscape from a very 21st century, contemporary sort of view,” says Justin Hopper, a writer and curator living and working between Sussex and London in England, and Pittsburgh. “When the British landscape was being painted in the 18th and 19th century, it was about painting nature that exists ‘over there.' Now we know we are intimately and intricately enmeshed in our natural world. We are causing damage to it. It's fighting back against us. It's not quite as nice as we used to portray it, and it's not quite as separate from us.”

Hopper assembled work by British artists Tessa Farmer, Jem Finer, Ghost Box Records, Tony Heywood and Alison Condie, Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton and Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt) for this unprecedented exhibit that immerses the viewer in unusual landscapes, both real and imagined.

Most of the works are video-based. But one in particular, an installation by London-based Tessa Farmer, turns notions of our natural world inside out.

Made entirely of organic material, including twisted plant roots, dead insects, crab claws, a sheep's skull and a taxidermied peregrine falcon, Farmer's untitled piece conjures a fantastical miniature world inhabited by tiny fairies, no taller than a centimeter.

However, Farmer's fairies are not of the typical Tinker Bell variety. Instead, they are evil-looking skeletal creatures with skull heads and translucent insect wings, who command the entire sculptural tableaux the artist has created for them, attacking the falcon only a few feet away from their ship — made from a sheep's skull — with a team of honeybee drones.

“It's a hunt scene in which a peregrine falcon is being hunted by the fairies,” says Farmer, who spent the week before the exhibit's opening reception Jan. 22 creating the piece with the obsessive precision of an entomologist.

The detail is truly astonishing, giving one the sense of having stumbled upon a secret parallel world in which Farmer's fictional fairies have learned how to control other insects and organisms to use them as weapons.

“They're really ambitious predators, and they are constantly developing new methods in that regard,” Farmer says.

An unintended backdrop to Farmer's installation is “Heliocentric,” a three-channel video installation by the artistic duo Semiconductor, comprised of Brighton-based artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt.

The piece, on display on three large conjoined screens, uses time-lapse photography and astronomical tracking to plot the sun's trajectory across a series of landscapes.

The entire environment seems to pan past the camera while the sun stays in the center of each frame, enabling the viewer to gauge the Earth's rotation and orbit around the sun.

“We all know the Earth revolves around the sun, but we can't see it,” Hopper says. “This represents that notion. … It creates this immersive situation in which you cannot ignore the fact that we are moving. It's something we all know, but we can never really experience it.

“It reminds of us where we are in the pecking order,” Hopper says. “We are not the center of the universe. Things are not moving around us. We are part of this ship.”

Other video works make record of the passing of time, another notion of landscape not able to be captured in one image. In “Paint Pours,” artists Tony Heywood and Alison Condie pour paint in the order in which the colors bloom in Britain throughout the year. Jem Finer's “Still” is a sort of stop-motion film distilled from the 18,000 photographs captured by a camera the artist left in a tree for two years.

Two other works complete the exhibit. “Memorius Earth” is a video homage to a remote English countryside of southwestern Cumbria, in northern England, which musicians Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton call home. Ten years worth of music and videos by Ghost Box Records, an English independent record label established in 2004 by Julian House and Jim Jupp, is housed in an installation based on a 1960s-inspired fictional town they call Belbury.

The exhibit, as a whole, will leave visitors rethinking the landscape that surrounds them.

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at tribliving@tribweb.com.

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