PAPER’s current show takes us on a journey into a place that, as we all know from the fairy tales of childhood, is better avoided. Yet the tug of its enticing spell persists. A place that – despite living adult, urban lives – we can each still access, without ever needing to set foot down a real forest path. A place without geographical specificity; both far, far away and simultaneously existing within us. The forest, after all, has long been recognised as a symbol of the imagination and unconscious.
Into the Deep Woods is formed of works on paper by 10 artists and a poet, developed in collaboration between PAPER and Swiss collective, a-space. The idea first came about through a conversation between David Hancock and Louse Isbjørn, whose ink drawings of woodland scenes are perhaps the most literal within the show. It isn’t so much the crisp outlines of branches or foliage that speak of the essence of her subject however, as the small pools of infinite blackness seeping outwards from the centre of each page; both drawing us in and heavy with forebode. Indeed, it’s upon the innocent protagonist’s first entry to the forest that so many dark fairy tales begin…
The same dichotomy of attraction and fear appears in more complex forms throughout the exhibition. Though nightmarish, the collection of mutated characters that populate the drawings of Mariana Lutz’s somehow beckon. They give the impression of looking right into your soul, despite their facelessness, while their guarded stance and removed position has a secretive quality. Perhaps these strange people are guardians of the forest’s secrets? Secrets that can only be gained at the irreversible cost of stepping into the page and becoming ‘one of them’. The drawings form part of o digl uaul, a series based on pre-war photographs taken in the Swiss Alps – a region known for its superstitions and folkloric tales, where locals are thought to have formed an almost symbiotic relationship with the myths that its landscape has generated.
The latent threat of fusion and imprisonment appears also Kaspar Bucher’s delicate red drawing, where branches bind the hands and engulf the face of a victim who appears somewhat passive, as if under some trance or enchanting spell. The forest is a place entered at one’s peril; once the boundaries of the imagination have been set loose, who knows down what dark path it might take us.
The faceless or obscured identities of both Lutz and Bucher’s figures resurface in Jeffrey Knopf’s woodcuts of half-monster, half-human like figures. The only British member of the association of Swiss woodcut artists, Knopf has a strong interest in Swiss folklore and European masking traditions. Throughout history and across different cultures masks have served a liberating function – providing a means of hiding our physical identity in order to reveal our truer, internal selves. Similarly, the fairy tale forest has itself served centuries of storytellers with a masking literary device: ungoverned territory in which to explore the darker side of the human psyche cloaked under the innocent guise of a child’s bedtime fable.
The inherent sense of threat that the lifeless mask has the ability to instil is connected to our deep-rooted fear of what unknown, animate being might lie behind it. David Hancock’s drawings of Ball Jointed Dolls (BJDs) perform the opposite version of this: the uncanny notion of the inanimate object brought to life. Each doll from the series has been imbued with its own unique and fantastical fairy tale narrative. Yet, battered and charred with blood, they clearly convey a sinister presence within the forest – a place uncanny in itself, where things are not as they seem and normal rules do not abide.
In Sharon Leahy Clark’s watercolour paintings we return to this theme of the uncanny. The artist’s intuitive, faux-naïve approach provides a channel into the unconscious where she is free to delve in search of the original primal images and universal archetypes that manifest themselves across humanity’s fables and myths.
Other works within the show adopt a more playful approach. For Into the Deep Woods Swedish artist, Pär Strömberg, and British poet, Katie Metcalfe, have collaborated on a series of small paintings based on Metcalfe’s poem, At The End Of The World – an apocalyptic twist on the traditional fairy tale, inspired by the pair’s shared immersion in the Black Metal subculture. The dark humour of Metcalfe’s words is first translated into performance before paint, as she models for Strömberg: acting out each of the poem’s 10 lines through a succession of timeless, eerily-intuitive gestures.
The modern day also creeps in elsewhere, such as Roy Andres Hofer’s charcoal drawings, grouped under the title of Greyfields (a play on the economic term for buildings and land no longer in use). Here contemporary spaces fall into disrepair, taking on the romanticised, ruinous aspect of the folkloric tradition, while collapsing pillars appear like looming branches. Each scene is vaguely suggestive of the tucked away, diminished status that the forest, myth and imagination has come to occupy in our day-to-day existence, yet none can be entirely dispelled and threaten to re-exert themselves at any given the chance.
Elsewhere Tyrone Richards’ portraits explore the opposite of the typically nebulous characterisation that fairy tale creatures often receive. Finding his subject in ‘the badie’, Richards confronts the viewer straight-on with the faces of real life predators, such as his piece J.W.G, based on the American serial killer and rapist, John Wayne Gacy. By doing so, Richards explicitly narrows the gap between fables and the often disturbing aspects of humanity that they serve to explore. Gacy, for example, developed the nickname of the ‘killer clown’ due to his charitable services at fundraising events, parades and children’s parties, where he would dress as ‘Pogo the Clown’, a character he devised himself.
Lastly, Adam Batchelor’s Shrine For a Beautiful Beast draws the other artists’ mediations to an interesting conclusion. His depiction of the wolf – a quintessential fairy tale character – is ambiguous. On the one hand, its fixed status as dead, and therefore triumphed over, suggests a deliberate act of demythification. Furthermore, the placement of its head upon a shrine seems to poke fun at the way we have distorted these animals by bestowing all sorts of anthropomorphic qualities upon them (such as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’). Yet the trail of pine leaves along the wolf’s tongue and the orange glint in its eye has a trace of the fantastical about it, whilst the fittingly gruesome, fairy tale-esque act of a beheading carries echoes of knights and clashing swords.
Visit PAPER and step Into the Deep Woods yourself, open until 25 September 2016.
Words by Sara Jaspan.