Into the Woods, Etchings by George Raab

by CARLA GARNET, Curator Beginning in the summer of 1922, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) occupied a small cabin in the Black Forest Mountains of southern Germany. Here, inspired by the wilderness around him, he produced many of his most well known writings on dwelling and place. For Heidegger, nature is what links dwelling with being, in an ideal sense, and in turn, he emphasizes preservation and the necessity of harmony with nature. The woods came to figure prominently in Heidegger’s writing, symbolizing the unconscious mind—a site of eclipse and revelation where light and dark meet and boundaries are negotiated. For him, the clearing in the woods is the perfect metaphor for philosophical illumination—the site of unconcealment, the essence of truth. The clearing, of course, depends on the existence of the forest—it is the light amidst darkness. Once the woods cease to exist and the clearing is a vast expanse, it no longer has the same illuminative power.

George Raab, too, makes his studio and home on the edge of a forest, in the small village of Millbrook, Ontario. And, like Heidegger, a sense of place—of groundedness in one’s physical surroundings—runs through his body of work. He speaks of finding solace—and his artistic voice—in the forests of the Algonquin area, early in his career. For Raab, the forest has power both real and symbolic. Like the landscape artists of the German Romantic period, Raab taps into the sublime power of nature, specifically the primeval energy of the woods. His meticulously detailed and tonally rich prints show viewers the mystery of the forest floor underfoot, while also beckoning a look upward toward the upper canopy and its relationship with the sky and the sun. The exhibit, Into the Woods, takes its name from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical of the same name—a bricolage of fractured fairy tales, all taking place in the woods, woven together, examining and celebrating the significance of forest imagery in our larger cultural imagination. The symbolic power of the woods has been an enduring narrative theme, figuring prominently in European folk tales; the source material for the fairy tales we know today. In countless stories collected by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, the dramatic action often unfolds in the woods. Certainly we can think of many fables where the woods make an appearance as something dark, unknowable, or foreboding. They can also be magical, sometimes enchanting, or mysterious. Cinderella’s fairygodmother transforms her pumpkin into a carriage under the cover of the trees, Snow White takes refuge from the Huntsman deep within the woods, Red Riding Hood gets more than lost en route through the forest to Grandma’s, and Hansel and Gretel’s mother abandons her hungry children to the woods.

The forest is the sphere of both the sacred and the profane, at once feared and revered. In Shakespeare’s plays, the woods again are a magical place, one where the rules of everyday life are suspended and enchantment and transformation occur: the woods become a metaphorical theatre of sorts. Into the Woods intentionally combines the theatricality, scale, and format of a layered stage curtain with a backstage scrim to engage viewers in an enactment of their own reading of Raab’s work—essentially transforming the exhibition space into a giant stage upon which gallery goers are encouraged to perform. Raab’s print-based works reveal expanses of treed space that can be scrutinized from many perspectives—technical, spiritual, political, and aesthetic. Raab lives by the woods in order to draw on a collective spirit that is both timely and timeless. His etching process, one that requires acids, grounds, metals, and pigments is alchemical—ancient, yet reborn with each new print. Using his photographs and drawings as reference and source for some of his impressions Raab conveys the scale and power of the quickly vanishing natural environment. The second act happens back in his studio, where he sifts through his carefully composed photographs and drawings until he alights on one or two that he’ll slowly and methodically etch onto plate, remaking each image through a successive series of bites, swipes, and pulls—until the natural world’s display reappears in a matrix of lines and dots that can then be made multiple. Clustered together on the gallery walls, Raab’s forest pictures evoke both the specific: the moment of viewing, frozen in time; and the universal: the forest as an idea, as a timeless symbol of our relationship to nature. Some of the images are lushly coloured records of the changing seasons, while others are monochromatic, somewhat removed from a sense of time and place, and instead appear eternal. Though their symbolic power is strong, at the same time they provoke an embodied experience: the viewer standing before the works can readily tap into the hushed and reverent feeling of being within the woods, dwarfed by towering trunks that have existed for countless generations. This embodied experience of the forest is further explored in a multi-layered conceptual installation and in two museum display cases. One vitrine presents excerpts sourced from the artist’s sketchbooks and journals, photographs, negatives, contact sheets, test prints, and Raab’s favourite old camera, alongside the forest floor’s memento mori. The other holds etching tools, paintbrushes, glass bowls with residual stains left by alchemical acids and resists, tubes and tins of ink, a palette knife, a zinc plate, and some severely blackened cheesecloth as evidence of the physical process of printmaking.

The show’s centerpiece is a series of large-scale images of a Hemlock forest printed on nine by four foot semi-transparent fabric panels, strung in three rows and suspended in in front of a scrim measuring nine by sixteen feet across. This floor-to-ceiling installation provides gallery-goers with a marvelously surreal experience of Raab’s work, inviting them to enter its folds both literally and metaphorically, mimicking the mystery, magic, and transformation that may occur deep under the cover of the trees. What Raab’s two-dimensional images subtly communicate—a deep and abiding love for nature and a passionate argument for the preservation of the wild spaces so necessary for a harmonious existence—is literalized here, reminding us that the symbolic power of nature will break down if we lack the actual experience of nature to connect it to. According to Heidegger, it is the role of man to preserve things, which sometimes means to let things be, and sometimes means to intervene on behalf of the greater good. This sense of living in harmony with nature he refers to as dwelling. To dwell is to cultivate, care for, preserve. The philosopher asks us to imagine a fruit tree; if we are to prune the tree, its branches can access more light, making them less susceptible to insects and mould outbreaks, promoting pollination, and thereby resulting in greater production of fruit. In Building, Dwelling, Thinking, Heidegger refers to his traditional Black Forest farmhouse as an ideal of building-as-dwelling. To dwell in a space then, rather to merely inhabit it, means to foster a sense of unity between the individual and the environment. To dwell is “to be set at peace… to remain at peace within the free, the preserve, the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature.”1 George Raab’s work resonates with this notion of dwelling. Like Heidegger, Raab is a conservationist. His images are not mere icons of nature, as are so many landscape pictures hanging in buildings, detached from any real sense of place. They are, rather, documents of a life in nature. Raab’s carefully composed and beautifully rendered prints make no attempt to rein in the fearful power of the wilderness, but they nonetheless entice the viewer with their calm, cool, quiet surfaces. To imagine inhabiting these vistas is to feel a frisson of excitement and awe not often experienced in the everyday spaces of contemporary society.

Now, forests are disappearing. Whereas natural and supernatural powers have been assigned to the forest since ancient times, the movement to establish national parks in North America began to coalesce in the mid-nineteenth century. The reasoning for the creation of the parks systems, now so important to Canadian identity, arose in part from a concern about the loss and disappearance of the continent’s natural and scenic resources. And no wonder: forests are central to life. They provide a range of resources, assist in regulating climate, purifying water, storing carbon, and mitigating soil erosion and flooding, while providing a haven for ninety percent of this planet’s terrestrial biodiversity. Raab’s work taps into a deep cultural anxiety about the world’s loss of forest cover—a concrete environmental predicament but also, Raab suggests, an ethical and existential dilemma. Forests are boundaries, thresholds, transitional zones and, as such, have a profound importance as both physical and psychic spaces. To dwell in nature as Heidegger described—to truly be aware of and in harmony with the world around us—is increasingly difficult in a world bent on exerting it’s dominion over nature. Reminding gallery-goers what it is to dwell amongst the trees, Raab’s work implores us to consider what is in danger of being lost—and to go, once again, into the woods. 1. Martin Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” in Rethinking Architecture, ed. Neil Leach (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 102.