Art

Exploring Beech Trees and Buried Painters in a Cemetery Attic

For Among Trees and Stones, artist Matthew Jensen explored Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, installing an archive of its history in the gatehouse.

Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (courtesy Matthew Jensen)
Installation view of Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (courtesy Matthew Jensen)

The attic of the 1876 gatehouse at Green-Wood Cemetery was long used as storage for silk flower arrangements, its peaked space of exposed beams closed to the public. The Victorian structure on Fort Hamilton Parkway is now open to visitors for the first time, with a few of those synthetic bouquets accompanying the exhibition Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones.

“We don’t have many physical structures in the cemetery that aren’t already being used solely for interments or burials,” Harry Weil, manager of programs at Green-Wood and the curator of Among Trees and Stones, told Hyperallergic. “Jensen’s exhibit pushed us to think more creatively about how we can repurpose some of our historic structures to use for exhibits, events, and performances.”

Photograph by Matthew Jensen in <em>Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
Photograph by Matthew Jensen in Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery

Artist Matthew Jensen formed the two-story installation in the gatehouse with objects he discovered while exploring the Brooklyn cemetery, such as precolonial shell fragments and 19th-century pottery shards, photographs he took of its beech trees, and landscape paintings from Green-Wood’s collection. Alongside are selections from Green-Wood’s archives, from hand-drawn diagrams of burial lots, to survey photographs by cemetery workers. In recent years, Green-Wood has taken a progressive approach to cultural programming, including Sophie Calle’s 25-year installation and Aaron Asis’s 2016 “unSeen Green” that wove through the 1911 chapel. The cemetery also actively collects art connected to the work of its “eternal residents.” As Richard Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery, told Hyperallergic last year, this collection helps to “keep their memory alive.”

“The exhibition, in many ways, is their debut party,” Weil said, since the collection currently has no permanent space. The 19 paintings in Among Trees and Stones were selected from over 400 works in Green-Wood’s collection. They are arranged salon-style on a wall in the lower level of the gatehouse, opposite its stained glass windows. Each is numbered so that visitors can use a map Jensen created to venture out into the cemetery’s 478 acres and discover their tombs.

Since 2009, Jensen has concentrated on art that involves walking, searching, and collecting, particularly in public parks and landscapes. For instance, his recent Wonder Walks for the High Line explored overlooked edges of New York City, like Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, through participatory walks and mapping. He’s now the artist-in-residence at the Urban Field Station at Fort Totten in Queens, a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and New York City Parks Department. Connecting with the people who preserve and protect these places is important to Jensen, and at Green-Wood he has upcoming public walks (one on October 21 and one on November 18) with their specialists in conservation and ecology.

Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones (courtesy Matthew Jensen)
A painting by George Henry Smillie in Among Trees and Stones (courtesy Matthew Jensen)

In his walks through Green-Wood, Jensen was drawn to its 182 beech trees, with their pale, sinewy trunks and purple and green leaves. “They are intensely photogenic subjects,” Jensen told Hyperallergic. “The bark is particularly fascinating with how it captures and preserves the marks of birds, insects, and carvings, and the ranges in texture are really amazing. Most importantly, adding urgency to the situation, is the fact that the trees are facing a blight that could wipe them out over the next few decades.”

On the Among Trees and Stones map, all the beech trees are plotted, so visitors can wayfind with their distinct forms, such as a huge weeping beech whose veil of branches creates a tunnel over a road. The trunk of a fallen beech tree is positioned outside the gatehouse, its shape appearing like a colossal hand, and vintage photographs of the removal of the oldest beech tree are on view in the gatehouse.

“What is really amazing is just how intertwined art and landscape were during the 19th century,” Jensen said. “Artists were painting beautiful landscapes, which then promoted the creation and preservation of landscapes, and when these artists died, many were buried in the landscape that most resembled their paintings: Green-Wood.”

Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
Installation view of Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

These painters, who are from the 19th and early 20th century, are mostly not the superstars of the Hudson River School or other landscape movements. (Aside from Asher Brown Durand, who is buried at Green-Wood.) Visitors to the gatehouse can see a moody lake view by Gabriel Harrison, an actor and photographer who dabbled in painting; a Tonalist view of a snowy field by Bruce Crane; and an atmospheric forest painted by Susie M. Barstow, a daring 19th-century woman involved in Hudson River School who climbed over 100 mountain peaks.

Green-Wood is a site that celebrates nature, even as the development of Brooklyn has encircled its verdant terrain. And it is a sculpted environment, much like the visions in these paintings. Before Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park, forming vistas with steam-powered digging tools and meticulously planting trees with wheeled machines, 1830s planners turned this glacier-carved hill overlooking the New York Harbor into an idealized version of nature. It was foremost a space for mourning, and remains an active cemetery, enduring as an escape from the bustle of the city. There is a lot to experience in Jensen’s archive of his exploration, including a library of botanical books, fragments of marble statues, and his photographs of those beech trees with their twisted trunks. “There is no playbook on how contemporary art can best be incorporated into a cemetery,” Weil noted. Yet each element of Among Trees and Stones reinforces that connection between New York’s culture and this historic place of death.

Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
The gatehouse at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
Installation view of Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A painting by Gabriel Harrison in <em>Among Trees and Stones</em> (courtesy Matthew Jensen)
A painting by Gabriel Harrison in Among Trees and Stones (courtesy Matthew Jensen)
Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
Installation view of Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
Installation view of Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
Installation view of Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A visitor taking one of Matthew Jensen's maps in the Green-Wood Cemetery gatehouse (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A visitor taking one of Matthew Jensen’s maps in the Green-Wood Cemetery gatehouse (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A beech trunk outside the Green-Wood Cemetery gatehouse (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A beech trunk outside the Green-Wood Cemetery gatehouse (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones</em> at Green-Wood Cemetery
The gatehouse at Green-Wood Cemetery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Matthew Jensen: Among Trees and Stones continues through November 26 at Green-Wood Cemetery’s Fort Hamilton Gate House (Fort Hamilton Parkway and Micieli Place, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn).

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