The first photograph in Eirik Johnson’s exhibition, Pine, on view at Seattle’s G. Gibson Gallery through December 1, is a cyan-soaked close-up of the words “We Were Here” carved into the trunk of a eucalyptus tree. The letters are faint, almost illegible, an effect of the tree healing its wounds over time. This, and the other photographs in the exhibition (and in his book of the same name, recently published by Minor Matters), are a culmination of nearly 10 years of the artist’s photographic documentation of youthful carvings of band names, love notes, and cryptic messages in tree trunks. Drenched in a rainbow of psychedelic hues lit by sparklers and reflected through prismatic filters,the series is a love song to adolescence, typological obsession, and a need to declare ourselves.
Pine began in 2011, accidentally, when Johnson was on a hike with his son in Seattle’s Carkeek Park. As they wandered down a moonlit trail, his flashlight landed on a tree bearing the words “I Love Lianne.” Johnson was struck by this anonymous yet deeply personal note, and he returned shortly after with a large-format camera. Instead of just documenting the tree, he brought sparklers, using them as a magical light source for this image and those that would follow. While I Love Lianne was left out of the exhibition, its relatable mystery lives in photographs of words like “It’s Only Me” and “SAVE,” which capture the balance between pain and tenderness.
In addition to the 14 photographs on view, two additional pieces add a layer of introspection. A custom-fabricated pink neon sign with the words “Make Out Tree” above an arrow directs the flow of the exhibition and points to the trees’ symbolic status as a site of memory. Nearby, Johnson installed a turntable, and gallery-goers can listen to a vinyl record that Johnson produced as an insert in his book, featuring music by Seattle musician Sassy Black, artist Whiting Tennis, and Johnson himself. This interactive installation complements Johnson’s photographs with an emotional soundtrack that speaks to the power of music to elicit memory. And Johnson’s prolonged – sometimes up to an hour-long – exposures give each image a meditative sensibility that beckons us to recall our own stories of love, loss, hope, and the need to leave a lasting mark.