Wander into the 'Forest'

Joan Sullivan
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Trees loom large in new exhibition

Some, it is said, can't see the forest for the trees. Visual artist David Kaarsemaker sees the forest and the trees.

His work includes a series of "tree portraits," centred, focused depictions of a single dying pine, and a cycle of large canvases showing a span of trees interwoven with lovely, uncanny figures in a dreamy choreography. Kaarsemaker sees the forest and the trees and he see much in the forest and the trees, both a paradise we have left and a subconscious we can never separate from.

"The Expulsion: The Divide." 2010 oil on relief panel. 40" x 60". - Submitted photo

Some, it is said, can't see the forest for the trees. Visual artist David Kaarsemaker sees the forest and the trees.

His work includes a series of "tree portraits," centred, focused depictions of a single dying pine, and a cycle of large canvases showing a span of trees interwoven with lovely, uncanny figures in a dreamy choreography. Kaarsemaker sees the forest and the trees and he see much in the forest and the trees, both a paradise we have left and a subconscious we can never separate from.

Kaarsemaker, 29, is from B.C., and moved here a year and a half ago, "pretty much on a whim," he said, speaking in his downtown studio where the oil paintings for his upcoming exhibition, "Forest," were carefully arranged and slowly drying. "I'd heard good things."

He has a degree from Concordia, where he studied photography, "but I'd always painted," he said. "I went back to it."

He works in oil, which is "like painting with butter," often starting a piece with charcoal and conte.

His "tree portraits" evolved from an earlier series of "leaf portraits," only "I wasn't calling them that, I was calling them 'Leaf Icons,' because I very much like Byzantine and Russian icons."

Kaarsemaker took several theology courses while completing his bachelor of fine arts, and he liked the translucence of icons, "the transcendental quality - they're painted in such a way that the light shines through them. You look through something material into something divine. And it was this idea of substituting this natural object for a saint, highlighting a portrait of a natural object in a religious context."

He spends a lot of time outdoors, hiking for fun and tree planting for funds, spending the past five summers in Northern B.C.

"The paintings I do depend on where I'm living at the time. I divide my time between large urban centres and the bush. I'm interested in contrasting the urban environment with the natural world, in the dichotomy of the world of nature and the world that we've made, and how they interact."

He usually works from photos, although he hopes to start taking small canvases into the woods and painting directly there. Even so, "I don't edit too much. One of the things I find interesting about painting from nature or natural objects is, I can paint a building from my head, we think geometrically, we think linearly, but the way branches can branch off from each other, that is not something we can really invent. I do stick really closely to what I see. I don't presume to be able to improve on a tree."

Although Kaarsemaker's canvases brim with imagery, they never seem crowded or busy, partly because they are so full of bare trees, composed with such elegant, spare lines.

"When you look at a tree head-on, you can paint the positive space of the branches or the negative space between the branches. That's much more simplified when you have bare branches."

Painting these spaces in turn creates patterns.

"I like these organic, squiggly shapes, which taken by themselves are purely abstract, but taken altogether they kind of form an image like a puzzle."

Kaarsemaker's palette also adds to this sense of innate, environmental richness. The tones are quiet, jewelled, based on nature but whetted with a numinous sensibility or the compelling peculiarity of its subjects. A single, tangled pine almost burns with white. A waltzing forest dancer wears a bear mask, or a wedding dress.

"The forest is a metaphor for consciousness. The dancers, I'm not sure what they symbolize. I got into them because I was researching mummers, the roots of pagan dances, and how dance in general puts us in touch with primal feelings."

Some of these pieces look into the forest, and some look out. Kaarsemaker said the mood of those looking out of the forest is "hopeful," while those looking into the forest "have the feeling of a dark dream. Not nightmarish. But it is looking into the depths of the mind."

This positioning of the viewer is also integral to his two "Expulsion" triptychs, as the central, right and left panels are created to provide specific vantage points. "It's a spatial relation," Kaarsemaker said, as the viewer could even be "an actor on a stage." As for the title, "I'm referencing the expulsion from Eden, and this idea of having left the forest, and we are now in this state of we're part of nature but we're also removed from it."

Kaarsemaker keeps his details of housing developments or parking lots generic, as they are meant to be any urban space. Sometimes he builds up the surface with small reliefs, and he has also left some areas underpainted, "to show the process."

Embarking from this exhibition, he has two new series in mind, one continuing with The Expulsion, and a second exploring the Tower of Babel. "And I want to paint in a more painterly way, working directly from what I see."

"Forest" continues at the Red Ochre Gallery until March 27.

Organizations: Red Ochre Gallery

Geographic location: Northern B.C.

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