Art can also be in the eye of the beholder

Joan Sullivan
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Visual arts review

"The Forest," by Craig Francis Power, is a new installation work, featured at The Rooms until March 16.

One small gallery on the second floor is filled with a grove of cut-out cardboard trees. These are made of two stylized matching panels, about six feet high. The cardboard surface is unadorned - they are stand-ins for the idea of trees and aside from their recognizable cookie-cutter shape, are not meant to look like them. Their function is to evoke, not resemble. Their two matching surfaces are lit, from inside, by standard nightlights, resulting in an eerie, just-after-dusk casting. The space is shadowed; it feels alert, still and close.

Moving through the trees - and you have to come into this forest to find this - is another cardboard cut-out structure. This is a house, with one window, and this is inset with a TV screen. Three short films run, continuously looped.

"The Forest," by Craig Francis Power, is a new installation work, featured at The Rooms until March 16.

One small gallery on the second floor is filled with a grove of cut-out cardboard trees. These are made of two stylized matching panels, about six feet high. The cardboard surface is unadorned - they are stand-ins for the idea of trees and aside from their recognizable cookie-cutter shape, are not meant to look like them. Their function is to evoke, not resemble. Their two matching surfaces are lit, from inside, by standard nightlights, resulting in an eerie, just-after-dusk casting. The space is shadowed; it feels alert, still and close.

Moving through the trees - and you have to come into this forest to find this - is another cardboard cut-out structure. This is a house, with one window, and this is inset with a TV screen. Three short films run, continuously looped.

The first is a frozen cartoon image of two children lost in a forest where the trees are exactly like our trees. Their dialogue appears in print above their heads, a growing awareness and anxiety about their fate (lost in the forest), delivering a neat, taut postage stamp of story.

The second has a trio of odd, masked figures - cackling, hooting unearthly creatures lit by a flashlight and accompanied, surreally, by a sad guitar ballad.

The third shows a man through a window, presumably this window of this idea of house, washing something dark and tactile in a metal sink - what could it be? - with two wineglasses left on a table. Who is missing? And why? (Under the circumstances, it is easy to assume the worst.) The imagery dissolves and shifts in starts and wipes, set against the sounds of discordant piano.

So. A few motifs here. No one will go into "The Forest" without mentally riffing off those dangerous forests of fairy tales - don't get lost, steer clear of the witch's hutch and mind the wolves. Even outside of such stories there is something atavistically shivery about the woods at night. Even such seemingly benign trees as these appear tinged with menace in the near dark.

That's what I was starting to think about the piece, anyway.

Then I read curator Bruce Johnson's notes. He does mention Hans Christian Andersen and "The Snow Queen." But he takes up much more space with such observations as: "'The Forest' is the third in a series of artworks (the others were 'Salty Dog,' 2005, and 'Inevitable Heartbreak,' 2007) that tackle Power's interest in the defining, marketing and limiting of identity."

I am sorry, but I am not going to let a sentence like that go. What on Earth does it mean?

Or, "This latest installation furthers Power's attempts to counter, as well as open, the closed world of off-the-shelf identity. To unlock this world, and the discussions surrounding it, he braids a series of speculative-narratives; twinning images and sounds that, in concert, defy a quick or linear reading."

Well, yes, they do do that. But this explanation illuminates nothing. A lot of the characters in the videos are masked, which could relate to identity, I guess. But overall the work seems more about spookiness, and monsters, and the sheer basic terror of not knowing where you are.

I do not want to simply take a few kicks at conceptual art. Believe me, it is an easy target. But I would have liked to have seen "The Forest" better presented. Writing about art is its own demanding craft, one that Power, by the way, is pretty good at, and I am left wishing for his words on what he has made here.

Not all art fits inside a frame. Some works require viewer ... "participation" might not be the right word. The work is structured to resonate with what is brought to it. For me, here, it's: be careful in "The Forest"; maybe something is hiding there.

But, please, check it out yourself. Have your own response.

Organizations: The Rooms, Snow Queen

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