A warm phase was befalling the Earth, as the Cretaceous period dawned, over 80 million years ago. ‘Creta’, from the Latin for chalk. Seas rose rapidly, vast swathes of land submerged beneath their surface and the bones of billions of microscopic coccoliths found their graveyard on the seafloor. This was the longest period of geological stability - skeletal matter at first softening, then compacting and ossifying. A blanket of living material laid to rest in dense, uniform layers, forming Britain’s single largest geological feature: The Chalk Escarpment, stretching beneath the English Channel and beyond, in some places a mile deep. Even away from the shore - where monumental white cliffs make way for the escarpments and dry valleys of the Chilterns, or the rolling pasture of Somerset - chalk remains. Present; just out of sight.
It is this quiet, yet unheard, voice of geology’s ‘soft rock’ which surfaces in Shallow Lands - an exhibition from artist duo, Forest + Found, at Informality gallery in Oxfordshire. A new collection made in 2021, the works draw from materials or landscapes encountered over the course of several years - from the wood of fallen trees to the chalk of scattered springs. Theirs is a practice of symbiotic yet independent material experimentation, at the confluence of fine art and craft. Projects evolve as a series of “non-verbal dialogues” - converging and diverging conversations - each founded in trust and uttered in individual hues. Dialogues around the material, the land, and alternative systems of knowledge, whether haptic or empirical.
For Abigail Booth, one half of the Somerset-based partnership, chalk is a matter of depth, permeability and possibility. Both literally and metaphorically. Through works of textile, pigment and panel, her work is borne of the earth and water; each piece drawn from an encounter with the land, resonant with personal experience, deep time, and “the implicit relations between living beings”. There are ochres clarified from British clay, originating in spring sites in Norfolk and Somerset. The pair of gesso panels on which they resurface (Divine Waters, 2021), hum with the mellow hues of unearthed pigments: russet and umber speckled with chalk - primitive, celestial, embodied. Meanwhile, a second pair of earth-works, titled Soft Rock (2021), reveal lunar scapes of white chalk. Their surfaces are perceptive on both a human and non-human scale - simultaneously a call to one’s roving fingertips and to the depths of the galaxy. They are (to borrow the phrase from Rowen White), nothing less than “intimate intensities”.
Then there are her textile works. The cotton itself is reclaimed from domestic materials - each bearing the patina of their previous lives, each self-willed in the face of Booth’s application of pigment. Small Bodies (2021) is a patchwork of warm, monochrome hues in burnt yarrow and chalk. Shells have been gathered from the South West coast, and sewn individually in a careful grid. A patchwork of lived lives, re-ordered, re-mapped. Opposite, we encounter Shallow Waters Run Deep - a large canvas almost floating from the gallery wall, imploring for our own submersion beneath its liquid surface. A patchwork of delicate strips of graduated burnt yarrow murmurs in one corner, their optical confusion a nod to the disorientation of an underwater experience. Meanwhile, across the work’s central field, larger quilted squares vibrate and nuzzle; eddy and swirl; flooded with an otherworldly blue of woad, over-dyed with camomile. This is an aquamarine inspired by the artist’s own immersion in a spring pool, formerly a limestone quarry. And it is the colour of sky, in fact (not water) - irresistibly backlit by white rock.
With Max Bainbridge, we must excavate deeper into the chalklands. His practice is one of commune with terrain and tree - from their inescapable physicality above ground, to what Susanne Surnard observes as finely adapted languages of the forest network. For Shallow Lands, the artist’s dialogue with chalk is perhaps more about a “landscape literacy” than a literal translation (as described by Andrew Farrant, of the British Geological Survey). A literacy which might comprehend how beech, yew and holly rise in places where chalk lies close to the surface, or how pine, heather and gorse thrive where chalk resides deeper underground.
If Booth’s works aim to intuit the latent narratives of nature itself; Bainbridge’s seeks to invoke the timeless, indescribable “solace” of wood. For Shallow Lands, Bainbridge presents a collection of upright, wall and floor pieces, rustling with his own accrued experience of the land; and in particular, the latent potency of the tree. Mindful of the abundant symbolism, mysticism, and cultural significance surrounding his subject, Bainbridge’s approach is to offer his material its own agency, to articulate its own, arboreal life cycle. Relic (2021), is one such example. Four panels of beech from a single tree shuffle side-by-side, in hushed harmony. Five years air-drying upright, has afforded them their idiosyncratic form: warped, split and yet perfectly entwined. The material has partaken in its own destiny - its provenance mapped onto its surface. We are reminded how the tree is a gateway both to the past - a witness to our political and social life - and to our future. It is up to us to face it with our individual flaws and foibles.
Across Informality’s gallery space: a more ominous presence, yet no less self-willed. Copse (2021), a wall piece in burnt brown oak, found its way to Bainbridge as an already fallen tree. Its blackened torso is a gasping, solemn tribute to the losses of forest fires worldwide, and a disquieting evocation of the fragility of environments closer to home. Echoing its darkness is Locked Vessel (2021), a turned vessel, rescued from a London plane. A deadening black, low to the ground, and sombre to the extent that Copse is upright and resolute. You have to venture close to discover its secret: a fistful of chalk, sunken into the base. The purest, most timeless treasure, sequestered. The whisper of final, precious breath.
As if the forms of nature are too potent to resist conjuring, we find a tentative move towards figuration, in this latest presentation from Forest + Found. Booth’s works, Revenant Being and Phantom Witness are inescapable in their silhouettes of a divining stick, rendered in chalk gesso and intense “bodily” oak tannins. For the artist, it represents all that is external to “science and fact” - a plea for intuition, instinct, embodied experience, and for “old tacit knowledge” of nature.
For Bainbridge, too, the form of the tree is transcribed more directly than his practice has ever permitted before. The pair of hollowed trunks - Deadstanding I & II - are transplanted, excavated, permeable homages to their former selves. With these works we are drawn into immediate physical dialogue with their ‘figure’ - tree to human - each displaced yet offered sanctuary in this new, shared space. For Bainbridge, this relationship between work and gallery space is the “bedrock” of his thinking. Some pieces exploit floating plinths for lightness and lift (such as Locked Vessel, 2021), or the wall as a tool for mirage and extension (Relic, 2021). With others, the floor is a foundation from which works rise-up, as in their natural habitat; no more so than the Deadstanding I & II- directly planted onto the gallery’s floor.
For Underlain (2021), Bainbridge exploits the possibilities of both horizontal and vertical planes - with the piece unfolding as a concertina of seven panels. In counterpoint to the silent stasis of Bainbridge’s vessels - Underlain is a thunderbolt through the gallery space; a force in which interior and exterior are inextricable. The panels’ perfectly imperfect joins grant views through its structure; whilst the horizontal stripes of the ash (naturally occurring in the material through microbial intervention) creates pictorial depth, as if reading the strata of a landscape. And in spite of its seemingly unnatural appearance, Bainbridge continually refers back to nature - calculating the work’s floor span to mirror the original length of the ash tree’s trunk. In the manner of Booth’s divination stick - the tree’s shape has shifted, but its essence remains. Its shape shifts with us.
Across Bainbridge’s presentation overall, there is a feeling that the material commands itself - fragility and imperfection permitted to surface, roughness and darkness endures, enigma not polished out. The majesty of the tree is not belittled, yet each specimen brought down to earth - to ‘our’ human realm. For both artists’, a reverence towards their particular craft ensures each work empathises with the human - through construction and surface, through forms that recall utility and domesticity, through scale and orientation.Nature is sentient, yet only activated within us fully through our experience of it. It is, for Booth, a “living and breathing thing that you are part of”. Her textiles have already lived a life, encoded with the stories of their former owners; their dreams and memories, or their physical imprint. There is almost nothing of the “cold and otherworldly... unnatural” perception of the chalk landscape, as writer Helen Gordon describes. Intimacy and warmth abound. Bainbridge’s trees, too - his works layered, warped and tarnished through their myriad elemental associations.
For both artists, this gentle approach to the natural world is key to the success of connecting others with their subject. It is a practice of kinship with the environment - both unassuming and imploring - with place steeped in personal experience (both their own, and others’). Their understanding is not far from Yi-Tu Tuan’s conception of place as somewhere endowed with value and feeling, or how Doreen Massey’s alights on “progressive” places - a series of interconnecting flows: “routes rather than roots'', in the words of Tim Cresswell. The creative stance of Forest + Found extends beyond geographical borders, beyond biology or botany, beyond the seen or the known. Shallow Lands proposes a new view of the chalk underbelly of Britain, but its depth extends into realms of the human and the geological, of domesticity and deep time. Like chalk it is densely layered, fragile and permeable - speaking to canopy tops and undercurrents. A palimpsest of the lived and the imagined. A tribute to nature’s own agency - and to hope.