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Gordon Harper and one of his pieces // Supplied

Gordon Harper’s dark forest of imagination

Tree Island (Gordon Harper)
Until Mar. 5
Peter Robertson Gallery

The majesty and illumination of the night has been a motif that has followed painter Gordon Harper for quite some time. His previous work focused on urban and stark manmade architecture, but for his recent exhibition Tree Island, he decided to venture off into the mystery of nocturnal forests.

“I started thinking ‘How do you paint the forest at night?’” Harper says. “So I started looking at peoples’ trail cam photos and historical and fine art images of early to late 19th century and early 20th century nocturnal photography where you’re setting up a strobe in the wilderness and capturing a random encounter with an animal.”

As Harper delved into these photos for inspiration, he identified these random encounters as violent connections between the urban, technological world and the natural, mystical world.

Taking that notion, Harper created spectral, high contrast paintings featuring animals such as deer, foxes, and wolves caught by these metaphorical strobe lights. Behind them appears phantasmal landscapes of trees, bones, and wild undergrowth.

“For me, what came out was this magic of the burst of light and how it creates a technically mediated space in the natural world,” he says. “So that led to the larger works which are an outgrowth of those studies where I’m making these more composite narrative images, but the aesthetic motif is the burst of light and this split encounter.”

Rings of Saturn // Gordon Harper

When painting his forest and its fauna, Harper also incorporated his love of pop culture, taking inspiration from cult TV mystery horror series like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Millennium.     

“I’ll go to a national park and step on a little paved trail and that’s about as deep as I’ll get into the wilderness. So if I want to experience the wilderness, mostly its from watching Twin Peaks or something like that,” Harper says.

Many of the pieces in Tree Island have a highly gothic quality to them, tinted in shadowy night-vision green or silvery white. This aesthetic comes from Harper’s love for art from the Western European Romanticism era.

“Gothic revival and that whole sensibility and Romantic painting for me is really about indulging in the power of an image—the evocative, mystical, ghostly power,” he says. “The way the infrared light hits these animals and breaks the whole image into these white silhouettes that aren’t quite there, enhancing the ghostly effect … Horror genre TV shows are an expression of that same sensibility of romantic landscape painting.”

When choosing the name for his exhibition, Harper wanted something that was evocative of the wilderness. He landed on Tree Island after finding a box of nails created by a metal manufacturer and turned their logo of a tree into a painting to connect all the pieces of his mysterious forest.

“So you can think of it as a title in a cinematic work, but doing that with a painting. Like Camp Crystal Lake in the Friday the 13th films,” he says.

Harper says one of the paintings, “The Harbinger”—featuring a faded shed and shadow of a stop sign—is emphatically linked to the horror genre.

“The first scene of every horror movie is the warning sign the characters ignore. So the harbinger of death,” he says.  

The names of the paintings were also decided before Harper began working on them. Taking heavy inspiration from what he calls “low-brow” horror like Teen Wolf and The Vampire Diaries, Harper devised a list of names like Blood Moon, Wolf Moon, The Magician, and The Hunting Lodge, and then created works that he felt fit the monikers.

“There’s always a sense of narrative in my work and I’ll create an exhibition of paintings with the idea being a room full of paintings that has some sort of conceptual narrative arch to it,” he says. “There’s no strict chronological narrative, but there’s a sense of getting back to the cinematic metaphor, the horror movie way of looking at things.”

The backwoods occult world Harper creates with Tree Island is certainly easy to get lost in. Each painting feels both inviting and slightly sinister at the same time. A perfect example is the piece “Wolf Moon” that has a parked vintage camper van surrounded by dark monolithic trees and a timid wolf. Below them, a reflection of the same scene is cloaked by a lake’s quiet water.

“Someone once said a painting is done when it starts to feel like a place and it retreats from your studio,” Harper says.

With Tree Island Harper truly gets to the heart of this sentiment.

This article was originally published on

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