The Arborealists: The Art of Trees 2017; Into the Woods

The Arborealists are a loose collective of artists who like to paint trees. They came together in 2013, though at whose behest, exactly, I’m unable to say: not only is the catalogue that accompanies their first London show one of the most confusing such documents ever written, but on the afternoon of my visit there is no information on its walls either – not even the names of the artists (though I’m told this will soon be rectified). What I can say is that they take some of their inspiration from the Brotherhood of Ruralists, the 70s anti-modernist group of which Peter Blake and David Inshaw were probably the most famous members: their instincts are, in other words, broadly Romantic, though this doesn’t preclude the possibility of abstraction in their work.

Challenging as an exhibition like this is to review effectively (it includes the disparate work of some 22 Arborealists), as a tonic for calm it works like a dream, the artistic equivalent of the Japanese practice of forest bathing. Yes, it has its sinister corners, not least Joanna Greenhill’s 2015 film Grey Cranham, in which a pair of headlights appear in the darkness at the edge of a forest (it plays on a loop in the basement); and a couple of the canvases, all twirling roots and amber halos, do bring to mind, rather unfortunately, the covers of old prog rock albums. But for the most part, the room is inspiritingly lush, a verdant realm in a more than usually urban patch of London.

Even more cheering, some of these artists can really paint. I can’t remember the last time I found so much skill in so modish a private gallery. Hannah Brown’s Victoria Park 7 (oil on marine plywood and oak, 2015) is masterly in its balance of light and shade, the merest hint of autumn – and perhaps something nastier and more melancholy, too – in the afternoon shadow that creeps over a pond and towards a group of sun-dappled limes. So, too, is Golden Birch (oil on gesso board, 2016) by Ffiona Lewis, a painting so gorgeously illuminated – the canopy it depicts is not green, but a dazzling sunflower yellow – I found myself closing my eyes for a second as if to bask in its radiance.

Maxwell Stein, 2013 by Jemma Appleby.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Maxwell Stein, 2013 by Jemma Appleby. Photograph: Courtesy Jemma Appleby / Hayloft Gallery
For the artist, trees are an infinite subject, one that embraces not only light and colour, but heady symbolism, too (the tree of life, the tree of knowledge). From a distance they may resemble cathedrals; close up, they’re cities teeming with activity. Blaze Cyan’s monochrome etching Wellington Woods II has a feeling of distant rafters, the tops of the trunks of his Scots pines aimed vertiginously at a blurry sky, while Michael Porter’s mulchy Forest Floor (oil and acrylic on canvas, 2011) zooms in microscopically on bark and fungus: think Richard Dadd’s Fairy Feller minus the satyrs and centaurs. To stare at this painting for an extended period is to lose yourself, to be both giant and elf simultaneously. A few of the Arborealists bring man explicitly into the equation, sometimes to brilliant effect. Jemma Appleby’s charcoal drawing Maxwell Stein (2013), for instance, depicts a famous bungalow by Frank Lloyd Wright in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. But while the architect intended the building and its grounds, designed for two teachers, to be an affordable utopia, in Appleby’s telling, the looming trees, now fully mature, suggest encroachment, the loss of certain cherished ideals.