Into the Woods / Coal Forest

Into the Woods Woodhorn Museum
Into the Woods installation shot. Image courtesy of Richard Kenworthy and Museums Northumberland

Woodhorn Museum incorporates the North East’s largest former pit-head complex, and its major social history collection is brought to life in events and exhibitions. With significant arts initiatives alongside heritage functions, this museum may exemplify exactly the kind of synergies that its inclusion in the Arts Council’s National Portfolio should help to foster.

Into the Woods is Woodhorn’s second open-call exhibition of artists based in the region, this time with trees and woodlands as the theme. It sits within a longer Coal Forest programme, which includes creative interventions across the site. In 2018 this contributed in turn to the national ‘Season for Change’ initiative linked to the UN climate negotiations.

This thematic concatenation is pertinent. Sometimes, after a storm here, Mesolithic tree remnants poke through the beach, descendants of swamp forests three hundred million years earlier that formed the coal on which the mining industry was built. The culture of that industry lingers in the communities that were the last to work the pits, but the landscape now is dominated by fossil-free wind turbines, while trees are there to provide amenity greenspace and fibre pellets for the converted power station.

The exhibition shows one hundred and sixty-eight artworks by one hundred and thirty artists, forming a joyful array of talents in varied media. The judges selected a Turneresque oil pastel by Sarah O’Dowd as the overall winner, with special commendations going to another oil by Sarah Bradford and a drawing by Andrea Roberts.

Visitors will doubtless pick their own favourites. The Bradford is superb in its layered atmospherics, and like the O’Dowd it conveys a deeply authentic knowing of forest environments. The same thing is somehow caught in a more abstracted but oddly compelling brown canvas by Sandra Rutter.

The mythic realm seems largely absent, and viewpoints are mostly conventional, with exceptions perhaps being Shona Branigan’s accomplished cross-section prints and Lorraine Udell’s clever root-mosaic. There is much studied communion here with trees as individuals, and some with the forest as a unit; but less that speaks to wider contexts or narratives of past and future. Again, therefore, some exceptions stand out: Paul Henery’s Doggerland allusion, Iain Bolton’s turbine above the branches, Carole Dodds’ delightful collage linking trees to their fate as newsprint, and Delphine Blenkinsop’s concept-piece evoking the importance of timber pit-props in a miner’s life.

Twilight Avenger Kelly Richardson Woodhorn Museum

Coal Forest, ‘Twilight Avenger’, Kelly Richardson. Credit and Copyright ©: Colin Davison

For the Coal Forest installations, Woodhorn secured works by Brass Art, Laura Ford, Crowe & Rawlinson, Kelly Richardson and Thrussells and a participatory project run by Bethan Maddocks. The presentation of these seems to offer them as both critical reflection and family entertainment, and possibly falls a little between the two. Good thought-provocation is here, however. Brass Art evoke the carbon and energy cycle with their heart/lung/tree powered by neon, which could equally be neon powered by the heart/lung/tree. Crowe & Rawlinson condense the historical arc in audio-visuals, while Richardson speculates on forest environments existing only in the digital realm, projected nevertheless in the grittiest physicality of an underground shaft – perhaps becoming a new kind of mineral seam for the future.

Into the Woods and Coal Forest both run until Monday 22 April 2019, Woodhorn Museum, Ashington, Northumberland.

Open Wednesday – Sunday. Tickets allow unlimited visits for twelve months from the date of issue. For admission prices, opening times and other details see www.museumsnorthumberland.org.ukNorth .

Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.

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