These paintings want you to get lost. They bring you in closer. Time slows to the soft, fungal register. And you are in the thick of it; the constantly rotting and revivifying more-than-human world. You see no sky.
Light is everything. Dappled, incandescent, it permeates the forest overstory. Particle and wave, light is life. It transmits its vital energy to every kindred organism in the ecosystem, every searching, symbiotic filament. For the painter too, light is all. The seen world made visible. In a trick of light, dimensional leaf shapes emit from the phantasmal darkness of the image plain. Still no vista.
The thing that is never in these paintings is sky, he says. Never the view above the trees. The valley is very steep. You’re always looking directly across to the ridge onto the opposite side. It’s the immersiveness of the forest that I’m interested in. It is a particular valley, a particular 100-metre-long stretch of river, of which he speaks. He has been painting it for years – ever since he got lost there, slipping and sliding downwards through the sludgy undergrowth, until he landed below the waterfall in the place of his paintings. If I walk further up the river or down the river, there isn’t any interest, he says. It’s just this one spot that has an energy that I like. It’s magical somehow. The light seems different there.
‘Deep Chine’ is name he has given to these forest paintings. It means, simply, ‘a deep kloof or valley’. The paintings are constantly evolving as he looks in different ways at the forest, always in flux, as it grows and dies and remakes itself, its fragile mudstone cliffs constantly eroding and collapsing, subtly changing each time he visits. When the logging happened in the area, the trees on the upper parts of the land were taken, but down in the steep kloofs they were inaccessible, so the ancient forest persists, completely undisturbed.
Peter Eastman’s grandfather was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1911 to German/Prussian Jewish parents. His family had left Germany and emigrated to America in 1850. They were a family of merchants and, in the 1870s, the three brothers had started Mendelson Brothers, a business trading in silk with Japan. The siblings were stationed between New York, San Francisco and Yokohama. During this period, the desire for Japanese objects, art and silks was enormous in the West, as described by ceramicist Edmund de Waal in his ancestral memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes.1
Despite its success, the business closed in 1923 – possibly due to the earthquakes in San Francisco in 1912 and in Yokohama in 1923. It was at this point that Eastman’s grandfather moved with his family to South Africa, and when his mother died, he inherited money from the trading business that enabled him to buy a large piece of land with deep kloofs and hills, that he named ‘Deep Chine’. The only house there is a small off grid-cottage and Eastman’s grandfather never lived there, but the artist has been visiting this piece of land since he was child.
It is connected to the Keurbooms Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just outside of Plettenberg Bay and a sanctuary for indigenous trees, including the Cape beech, giant stinkwoods and Outeniqua yellowwoods. These ancient, fugitive trees escaped the commercial onslaught; living remnants of the vast Afro-montane forest that existed prior to the arrival of European settlers.
Experiencing Eastman’s paintings calls up a passage from Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory, in which the deaf dendrologist Patricia Westerford, a character inspired by the real-life forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, experiences an old growth forest.
Up close she’s lost in measurement’s opposite. All she can do is laugh and look some more. … The air is so twilight green she might be under water. It rains particles, spore clouds, broken webs and mammal dander, skeletonized mites, bits of insect frass and bird feather. If she holds still, vines will overrun her. She walks deeper in. … The canopy is a colander stippling the beetled- swarmed surfaces: sword fern, liverworts, lichen, things with leaves as small as sand grains stain every inch of the damp logs. The mosses are thumbnail forests all their own. More bushwhacking reveals the prodigious rot. Creature-riddled voles crumbling for centuries. Snags, gothic and twisted, silver as inverted icicles. She presses on a fissure of bark and her fingers sink in.
Fecund putrefaction fills her lungs. The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each cubic foot, woven together by fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spider web leaves her woozy. Mushrooms ladder up the sides of trunks, soaked by fog all winter long, spongey green baize she can’t name coats every wooden pillar to a height well above her head. The forest pulls her along… 2
As vital and true-to-life as these paintings are, they are not just paintings of the forest. Rendered in two-tones – a dark background and a light foreground – they also transmit an entrancing ghost-like quality. The colours of the Deep Chine paintings are at a remove from the actual colours of the forest. This abstract, two-tone aspect, combined with the matte, chalky texture of the paint, is a muted reference to the kind of mark-making we know from childhood chalkboards and to Cy Twombly’s abstract, psychological chalk drawings.
This two-toned aspect also recalls the grainy black-and-white images produced by photocopy machines, an aesthetic to which Eastman was strongly drawn as a teenager. His brushstrokes, made while priming the smooth surface of the aluminium, result in finely ridged vertical lines. So the texture of the paintings echoes the grainy vertical lines in the photocopied image.
The more you look at them, the more you recognise the strangeness of the act of perception itself – the hypnotic interplay between flatness, depth and dimensionality.
Going beyond naturalism, they at once represent the play of light within the forest, while drawing our attention to the centrality of light in the act of perception – and, to push it even further, the proximity between retinal photochemistry in humans and the essential life-force of photosynthesis in plants.
They engage our eyes and shift our consciousness from plant-blindness to plant- consciousness. They collapse the deathly, imperialist idea that humans stand outside of nature and affirm a sublimely ambiguous kind of interchange. As the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about the experience of seeing in the woods: ‘I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.’ 3
The title of the exhibition is drawn from ‘Siccar Point’, a song written by Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan, inspired by one of geology’s most important points in Scotland – the place where, in the 1700s, geologist James Hutton came upon a special arrangement of rocks which would reveal that the Earth was far, far older than anybody had thought and that tens of millions of years of time had passed. The phrase ‘even rocks melt in the sun’ pays homage to a line from ‘A Red, Red Rose’, a well-loved 1794 song by Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns,:‘Till all the seas gang dry, my dear, and the rocks melt wi’ the Sun, Oh, I will love thee still, my dear, till the sands of time have run’, which signalled his awareness of Hutton’s theory of deep time.
1 Edmund de Waal, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (London: Vintage, 2010).
2 Richard Powers, The Overstory (London: Vintage, 2018).
3 ‘Nature’ is a book-length essay first published in 1836. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’.
(Text by Alexandra Dodd)