Jack Whitefield, Furze

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Tarmac Press (here). Staple bound softcover (23.5×20 cm), 64 pages, with 40 black-and-white reproductions (single color Risograph on newsprint). Includes a short introductory text by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The subject at the center of Jack Whitefield’s recent photobook Furze is a simple one – fields of charred gorse. Whether they were burned accidentally or in a controlled manner to slow their stubborn invasion on grazing lands isn’t important. The tough evergreen plants that covered the ground in dense thickets have been thoroughly scorched, leaving behind skeletal blackened sticks and smoking wastes. And as Whitefield walked through the charred fields, his jeans and hands inadvertently became covered in charcoal marks, generating a spark of artistic inspiration.

What Whitefield discovered is that the fire had transformed the fields into a vast mark making machine. So he brought large pieces of paper to the area, gently draped them over the bushes, and then dragged them across the spiky sticks. Since they had essentially been changed into charcoal, they marked the paper with black lines, and depending on the natural arrangement of the plants and the artist’s movements, the papers were covered with wispy gestural marks, dense clouds of all-over scrapes and scratches, or insistent black strokes like ancient calligraphy. The rubbings seemed to capture a sense of hidden energy and motion, both urgently primal and surprisingly elegant.

To many, this will sound like something straight out of the 1960s or 70s, perhaps the kind of thing Robert Smithson might have done or an environmental intervention from what would later be gathered under the Land Art or Earthworks movements. And the understated, newspaper zine format of Furze certainly harkens back to that period. But in the context of the wildfire ravaged, climate altered present, Whitefield’s project feels topical and even quietly engaged, the artist finding original expressiveness and renewal in among the charred ruins.

While a number of the spreads in Furze reproduce the end product “drawings”, Whitefield’s photographs compellingly document many of the stage-setting and process details. Whitefield first shows us the smoking fields from his car window, and then gets in closer with murky views of dark smoldering wastes. One of the most powerful images in the book captures two scythe-wielding firefighters trudging through the hellscape like grim agents of death, but Whitefield quickly moves on to more intimate views of the charred plants after the smoke has cleared. He gets close to fragile brittle stalks, pathways through the tangled thickets, the textures of burnt grass areas, and even some spiky new growth on the blackened branches. It’s clear he’s spent ample time wandering around these fields, feeling the subtle rhythms of destruction and rebirth from various vantage points.

The photographs get more interventionist and almost performative when Whitefield introduces his white sheets of paper to the charred surroundings. When he places them in amongst the branches, their incongruous anonymous presence introduces active human art making into nature. In some pictures, we see him holding the sheets, pressing them down, or pulling them across the gorse, making his active participation clear. In others, the papers look like lost sheets or white flags idly and randomly blown into the fields, a few becoming torn and crumpled along the way. From a few steps back, the white intrusions feel perplexing and strange, but in a few cases, when the sun shines from behind the paper creating shadows and silhouettes or when Whitefield shoots from underneath the gorse up to the billowing sheet overhead, a sense of momentary grace infuses the process. The photographs deliberately encourage us to oscillate between notions of found and installed, allowing various forms of chance and accident to guide the art-making action.

While the resulting drawings might be mistaken for lost examples of Abstract Expressionism, perhaps they can better be read as a kind of stilted and improvisational communication, like the trees trying to speak. This gives Furze a kind of low-key mysticism, the expansive and sometimes frenetic thoughts of the fire-blackened and wind-blown gorse ringing out, if only we could read them. In this project, Whitefield has interacted with his chosen subject with unexpected humility and respect, leading to a modest and intimate zine that opens the door to alternate forms of artistic thinking.

Collector’s POV: Jack Whitefield does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artist directly via his Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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