Art review: photographer Clifford Ross focuses on the force of nature

The word that kept popping up as I visited the first gallery of “Clifford Ross: Sightlines” at the Portland Museum of Art (until January 9) was “imminent”. This space is dedicated to black-and-white photographs of the waves pushed by hurricanes off the coast of Long Island, and they are so close and personal that the feeling of imminent peril they evoke in the viewer is almost frightening.

We can’t help but wonder what happened the second after Ross took these pictures. Was it swallowed up by the waves? Knocked down and swept away in violent waves? What happened to his large format camera? Surely the waves have crushed it on the sand and damaged it, so how is it possible that we are even looking at the photo hanging in front of us? All of this shows the extraordinarily visceral quality of these wave images.

The waves are one of the two subjects which occupy the entirety of this exhibition. The other is Mount Sopris in the Elk Range of the Colorado Rockies. These works evoke an opposite emotion, which David M. Lubin, in one of the three superlative essays in the catalog, describes as an “aura of eternity”.

The photographs of this peak, which Ross prints in both lush technicolor and negative, convey the solidity, tranquil majesty and age-old wisdom of the mountains. While the waves are in constant motion, the images of the mountain are reassuring, peaceful and stable.

Clifford Ross, plate 5. “Mountain II”, 2005. Chromogenic print, 75 x 130 inches framed

By photographing these subjects over and over again, Ross invokes painters whose art serializes natural wonders and objects on the landscape (Cézanne’s endless views of Sainte-Victoire mountain and Monet’s variations of haystacks in different conditions time and light immediately come to mind). It is not a coincidence.

Ross trained as a painter in the 1970s, when the dominant movements were Abstract Expressionism and the Color Field. His connection to these genres was also personal; her maternal aunt was the painter Helen Frankenthaler, who was associated with the two schools, although linked.

Eventually Ross broke with these styles, a move precipitated by his experience of Goya’s paintings at the Prado in Madrid. Deciding that the kind of instinctive experience he wanted to capture was not achievable by abstraction alone, despite claims by one of his early idols, critic Clement Greenberg, he sought a more representative expression.

Ross took up photography. But, not wanting to simply reproduce a scene by freezing it on film, he approached this medium with full recognition and appreciation of the ability of abstraction to convey a deeper dimension of reality under factual and superficial representation.

This dovetail perspective becomes inevitably evident when inspecting the many photos of waves in the exhibition’s first gallery. Moving from image to image, the physical elements of the surf – water, foam, spray and mist – as well as the compositions themselves, begin to abstract into something other than what they objectively could. seem to be.

In “Hurricane I,” the foam that dissipates from the wave’s white hat separates to the right in a way that resembles cotton candy pulls. The central ascending jet of “Hurricane VIII” can resemble both the fin of a sunfish breaking the surface of the water or a stand of trees on a rocky island.

The wall of dark water horizontally cutting “Hurricane XV” looks like cliffs overlooking a tumultuous sea. We can perceive “Hurricane XIX” as cumulus formations rising from a dense cloud bank that we could see from an airplane window. In another room, the bubbling foam of the breathtaking “Hurricane XXXIV” takes on the viscous quality of wax or milk, perhaps even solidifying into porcelain.

Ross is also experimenting with the porosity of various surfaces, from the less permeable polyester film to the ink-absorbing Japanese. gampi-style calligraphy papers with wood veneers. Each produces distinct effects. When he transfers a cropped negative image of a section of forest surrounding Mount Sopris onto wood veneer using UV-cured ink (as in “Untitled, 2019”), the work appears from away in the form of a panel of gilded silk brocade.

Clifford Ross. Plate 44. “Harmonium I”, 2008. Archival pigment print 50 x 41 inches framed

Something similar happens with “Harmonium I”, a pigment print on handmade paper, although here the areas of brightness diminish the patterned textile appearance and accentuate the outline of trees and leaves. Negative images that focus on portions of foliage also suddenly take on an Asian dominance, reminiscent of Japanese paintings of the “floating world” or Indian ink landscapes. In the monumental triptych “Wood Wave, XLIX”, which measures more than 12 meters by 6 meters, the droplets of the wave spray sparkle like gold dust.

These are all technically fascinating effects that transform conventional photography lenses into something more painterly. But the enormous scale of many of these works also does something else: it gives an air of religiosity to the subjects. The images of Mount Sopris are certainly reminiscent of Ansel Adams’ reverent photographs of the Rockies and the Tetons.

But Lubin also draws parallels with 19e– American landscape painting of the century. Indeed, it is not difficult to detect, behind the works of Mount Sopris, the spirits of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, or, behind the wave pieces, Winslow Homer. (In fact, I couldn’t stop imagining how spectacular a spectacle juxtaposing Homer’s seascapes and Ross’s waves would be.)

In Alexander Nemerov’s catalog essay, he also links Ross to 19eThe German romantic painter of the last century Caspar David Friederich, as well as literary lights, in particular Herman Melville and his magnum opus, “Moby Dick”, which is one of Ross’s favorite books. Both of these figures were concerned with how the greatness of humanity – particularly the illusion that we can “conquer” or “tame” our environment – is constantly forced to bow to the awesome power of nature and, by extension, the god who created it.

While Ross did not design these works with an environmental or moralizing message in mind, in the context of climate change and the series of natural disasters that continue to unfold to this day, it is not difficult to see these photographs from this angle.

Clifford Ross, “Light Waves IV,” 2019. Computer generated video on 8h x 4 ‘LED wall Portland Museum of Art, Maine, pledged gift from an anonymous donor. (The photograph represents an 18 x 18 ‘screen.)

If nothing else, it is impossible to ignore – in the immense scale of the works, the sublime magnificence of Mount Sopris and the wild, pounding surf – the formidable and undiluted force of nature. As such, we can be both awed and terrified: awestruck by nature’s intense power and terrified of its potential wrath.

We can also have remorse. It is becoming increasingly difficult in our world to deny the depredations that humanity visits on our lands, our oceans and our atmosphere. It is also impossible to see forest fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, mudslides and other “natural” disasters as a direct response to – perhaps a punishment for – our contempt.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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