Review: Christy McCaffrey and Sara Newey at Machine Project


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If you like Griffith Park and Universal CityWalk, you’ll love “The Forest.” The devilishly clever installation by Christy McCaffrey and Sara Newey brings the best of both to Machine Project, a small storefront gallery where freethinking fun is business as usual.

The indoor forest begins with innocent fascination. It’s a treat to step out of the midafternoon glare of the busy city street and into the dimly lighted gallery, where truckloads of soil, wood chips and pine needles carpet the floor. Life-size trees encircle you, and crickets chirp in the background.


As your eyes adjust to the lighting, designed by Bill Ballon, and your ears pick up the relaxing rhythms of the soundtrack, recorded by Emily Cummins, it’s clear that McCaffrey and Newey have not created a super-realistic work that is intended to trick you. What they have done recalls the work of the original Surrealists, who went to great lengths to jolt folks out of dull habits in order to reawaken some of life’s wonder and to warn of its precariousness.

Artifice is everywhere apparent. Swatches of burlap stick out of the ground. The tops of partially buried flowerpots are visible. Branches, taken from tree trimmers before getting mulched, protrude from faux trunks at unnatural angles, their ends abruptly cut. And the 1970s mural wallpaper never pretends to be anything more than it is — a shamelessly fake fantasy. The same goes for the clouds painted on the sky-colored ceiling.

Although some of the concrete tree trunks, fiberglass boulders, synthetic leaves and plastic mushrooms might be movie-set leftovers, the artists steer clear of the seamless illusionism of big-budget productions, in which verisimilitude rules. Imaginative transport, not illusionistic deception, is their goal. Escapism gives way to critical contemplation.

Sitting on a real log or on an artificial boulder along the meandering path that runs through the 15-by-30-foot gallery is not all that different from taking a break along a trail in a national park. The respite is nice, but it’s neither private nor free of distraction.

McCaffrey and Newey’s installation sets you to thinking of shrinking forests, growing cities, spreading pollution and the rampant packaging of just about everything. Such melancholic musing transforms “The Forest” into a DIY memorial for the natural environment, a contemporary memento mori for a world unspoiled by what we think of as civilization.

-- David Pagel

Machine Project, 1200-D N. Alvarado St., Echo Park, (213) 483-8761, through April 24. Open Saturdays and Sundays. Call on weekdays.

Above: ‘The Forest’, installation view. Credit: Tom McCaffrey