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'Hugh Hayden: Brier Patch' at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection reviewed in The Washington Post

17 July 2023

A classroom arrayed with student desks, minus boisterous kids, evokes education, advancement and discipline. Hugh Hayden’s “Brier Patch,” installed in the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, represents all those things — and more. One-quarter of the 100 desks are ordinary blond-wood furniture. From the other 75 desks, gnarled branches protrude wildly, towering over the schoolroom fixtures. The effect is striking but ambiguous: The branches can be seen as threatening, beautiful or both.

The 100 desks were originally installed last year in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, where they were divided among four lawn areas. At Dumbarton Oaks, they’re arranged in three configurations. The plain desks are placed in a semicircle on a tiered terrace on one side of an oval pool. Most of the ones with branches are aligned neatly on the lawn called the North Vista, which slopes down toward a forest beyond the garden, an unmanicured expanse to which the desks’ boughs seem to beckon. The rest are scattered in a nonlinear format in a grove of trees in front of the building entrance, close to bordering S Street NW.

The desks were made by Hayden and his assistants from white cedars cleared from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens to make way for cranberry cultivation. The furniture makers cut slats of wood to which branches were still attached, so the forestlike tangle is integral to the desks. The wood isn’t simply the remains of trees; each of the branched desks is still, in part, a tree.

The piece’s title expresses that and other dual meanings. “Brier Patch” is a reference to the parables of Br’er Rabbit, Black American folk tales rooted in African stories of a trickster rabbit who eludes his enemies by escaping into a brier patch. The vegetation is menacingly dense, twisted and prickly, which is why it serves the rabbit so well as a sanctuary.

The transition from raw wood to finished object also speaks to traditional ideas of civilizing — something education is supposed to do — and to humans’ vast debt to nature. Treating the world primarily as raw material allowed societies to flourish, but the ongoing process of turning plants and minerals into consumer and industrial products now threatens to burn or flood what they’ve built.

Read the full review by Mark Jenkins in The Washington Post here.

Hugh Hayden: Brier Patch is on view at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection through September 25.

Image: A view of the installation "Brier Patch" by Hugh Hayden at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. (Kevin McDonald)

'Hugh Hayden: Brier Patch' at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection reviewed in The Washington Post
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