Visual Arts: Cable Griffith and the Majesty of Tree Sprites

As influenced by Skyrim as the Cascades, Cable Griffith has created an ode to the grandeur of landscapes real and virtual.

Above: "Moonless Night"

The Kokiri Forest always made me want to go outside.

That opening segment of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time imprinted a strangely distinct concept of what “wilderness” meant in my childhood brain. Waking up in that verdant, elven tree village of Kokiri, hopping from rooftop to rooftop to scrounge enough rupees for a Deku Shield, informed the way I played in the woods outside my house in real life. I would hop from stump to stump, swinging a stick overhead and screaming “HYEAH!” like Link did when he jump-attacked a slobbering plant-monster.

The effect wasn’t an anomaly. Zelda’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to make the game after venturing into the forests and caves around his home in Japan as a child. In an odd reflexive phenomenon, Zelda informed my environment in the same way that the environment had originally informed Zelda.

Cable Griffith, a young Cornish professor with hair that sticks up at all angles, grew up playing video games and jumping around the woods behind his house too.

“I was talking to someone just earlier today about the Zelda series, and how it was one of the first game environments you could get completely lost in because of how big it is,” Griffith tells me. He reflexively sees popular game worlds in the real world all the time.

“It’s funny. I was out camping recently and the trees around the campsite reminded me of a forest I’d been in in Minecraft. Hiking through the Cascades made me think about Skyrim. It’s that same phenomenon.”

Griffith thrives on these crossover moments—the strange pull that virtual environments can have on the mind; the way that even simple, abstracted representations of the world in Atari games like Pitfall or Adventure can instill the same sense of wonder that a national park preserve can.

Above: "World Two Overview"

His new show at G. Gibson Gallery, Quest, is a collection of landscape paintings inspired by this merger of virtual and real environments, a culmination of an interest in imagined ecologies he’s been chasing since his earliest works.

“I’m fascinated that games can captivate you and make you believe in this space. I love that it can trigger this sense of vastness even though it’s not vast at all,” Griffith says. “With Zelda, you look back at the first one in the series and realize how simple it was, how these little sprites got put together to form this giant world you might never be able to completely explore.”

Griffith’s work is an attempt to create his own giant world, a practice he roots in the traditions of landscape painting while integrating the abstracted, simplified symbology of video games.

“In the history of painting and the history of video games, there are these conventions, there are these systems of representation. For instance, there are different ways through time that trees have been depicted. Artists did oil paintings of them, and then there were tree sprites,” Griffith says, referencing the two-dimensional bitmaps early game developers used to render graphics. The difference between Griffith and classically trained landscape painters is that he accepts both methods of representation as equally valid.

The result looks like something Thomas Cole might have made if he’d grown up reading Nintendo Power instead of Last of the Mohicans: incredibly dense worlds populated by a wiggling ecology of unidentifiable bioforms and endless geometric tree sprites. World Two Overview, a piece that riffs on Super Mario’s SNES overworld screen, is overwhelming in its scale. Islands, forests, cliffs, and pyramids extend into the distance.

Griffith has used his “World Overview” paintings as references for other works. He picked a spot in his World One Overview and created a new painting as if he were standing on that chosen vantage point—much like Google Street View—fleshing out smaller sections of the larger landscape.

“It was an attempt to claim that land,” Griffith says. “It’s a very basic human instinct, I think, to make your stake on a landscape.”

Quest takes its name from that instinct, to explore a world that Griffith is also actively creating. After his last exhibit, Islands, which focused on the eponymous landform, Griffith is taking Quest as an opportunity to traverse the expanses in his head. “There’s been this promise of perpetual discovery since I was a kid, so with this work, I just let it go where it wanted to go,” Griffith says. There are narratives hidden in this world, even though Griffith never paints defined characters or subjects.

Above: "Gallatin Passage"

On a trip to Yellowstone, Griffith and his wife stayed in a hotel with a beautiful natural vista. Griffith sketched the scene in his notebook, and later revisited it in Gallatin Passage, a canvas that he says began very bare but ended up dense with hidden, suggestive narratives. A dotted line plunges into a hole—did a creature just jump in? Is the line a rope or indicative of motion? Is that disc-shaped mushroom figure flora or fauna?

“The point of the paintings are not to share my own feelings or thoughts,” Griffith says, “but to trigger stories and possibilities in the viewer’s mind that might inhabit these spaces.”

QUEST G. Gibson Gallery, 300 S. Washington St., 587-4033, Opens Jan. 24. 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed.–Sat. Ends March 4.

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