Making Waves, The Art of Clifford Ross
Boca Raton Museum of Art (Florida)
November 5 - March 1, 2020
By CAIA HAGEL, November 2019
Clifford Ross, one of New York City’s most minted and romantic photographic artists, makes waves. Literally. He stalks the hurricane waves of the East Coast and in a harness, using his large format camera inventions, wrestles with these mammoth forces of nature until he captures as much of their essence as possible. He prints the still images at awe-inspiring scale, and when we are with them, we are humbled, and reminded of our humanity inside the immensity and omnipotence of the natural world.
Making Waves, The Art of Clifford Ross, which just opened at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, is both a retrospective of his mystical wave oeuvre and a foray into its ongoing creation. Alongside still images and images printed on sculptural surfaces, there is the Digital Wave, an LED wall four feet wide and eight feet high, which moves the still experience into total immersion. By using the same technology as the LED billboards of Times Square, the Digital Wave gives moving waves not only a realism that is so visceral that it brings viewers to a spiritual place of wonder and maybe even fear, but also an ironic spin on our obsession with Dow Jones Industrial Averages. Here, waves replace capitalism with their unfathomable power, and water, our birth sake, moves inside us and moves us inside it, in undulating rhythms. Pixel by pixel, soundbite by soundbite, we feel the supreme might and poetic authority of the ocean, from a raw place that we have become largely unconscious of.
By being both beautiful and political in a time of climate crisis and face-offs between the planet’s survival instincts and humanity’s economic interests, Making Waves is stirring. Irvin Lippman, the executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, calls it “A very meditative, lyrical and completely engaging” show, and adds, “It is clear that Clifford Ross’s work, more than ever and perhaps more than it was originally thought of at creation, is making reference to our current concerns related to climate change. At our coastal address [in South Florida], the issue is even more topical and critical”.
I spoke to Clifford Ross on the eve of the show opening, where he talked about the next non-human era, chasing the abstract sublime, the insignificant Millennial dating crisis and not playing God.
Caia Hagel: Technology has accelerated since you invented your large format camera, and it seems so has your desire to capture the elusive power of the hurricane wave. Can you talk me through where technology and your process have culminated for these new works?
Clifford Ross: Technology continues to make new expressive possibilities available to me. And I keep discovering new ways to work with technology.
For instance, the Digital Waves I exhibited on the two large LED walls at MASS MoCA were computer generated videos. It took 3-4 years to figure out how to use existing software in a unique way that gave me the result I wanted. I rebuilt the software for my own ends. At the time, since I had my hands full developing this very complicated 3D world of ocean waves, I placed a fixed “camera” above my imagined ocean to look down on it, and made two one minute videos. The Digital Waves I am exhibiting in Boca Raton make use of moving cameras, 3D perspectives as if we were in the ocean, not above it, up to 15 multi-layered images, and a new color palette. I’m always hungry to extend the depth of my art through new visual language.
CH: You did invent your own cameras to begin with—and are known partly for this inventive side of your practice. Have others caught up with you at all?
CR: I don’t think of it as a competition. Think of Picasso and Braque inventing Cubism as a pair of mountain climbers, roped up for an ascent. How far ahead one got in a given week only enabled the other to go further up the mountain. Being ahead is a momentary thing that doesn’t count much. What matters is how expressive the art becomes though the tools or vocabularies we invent.
CH: Can you explain the 'God' aspect of your oeuvre in general, the desire to be that intimately close to something numinous and omnipotent, and give that experience to others?
CR: Nature knocks me out. Especially big nature. Part of my job is to try and make art that allows people to feel what I feel in front of big nature. I’m certainly not playing god. I’m a speck, looking at the real world, and reporting back to my fellow specks.
CH: There's something so futuristic about your digital waves, and also mysterious and enveloping, even though they're based on science. Can you tell me what you felt creating them and how you knew they were right?
CR: The struggle to make the Digital Waves was arduous, because the digital world is complex, and the existing software wasn’t designed to meet my goal of expressing the complexity and power of the ocean while sidling up to abstraction. I imagined a 21st-century digital expression of what Pollock had achieved with paint. What Robert Rosenblum called the abstract sublime. I’m always trying to make advanced technology behave in a way that feels analog.
My creative process, including all the thinking and tinkering, comes to an end when I see something that is satisfying, that feels complete in some way, that feels right. Sometimes the creative process ends with a bang, sometimes with an exhausted whimper. “Yep, that’s what I’m after…. Next?!!!
CH: Natural disasters are on the rise and there's a bigger debate than ever about the climate crisis. How do you see your work situated in the politics of the environment?
CR: My “game” is always to celebrate big nature, to create simulacrums that place the viewer in a state similar to the one I was in while in the ocean. It isn’t just about realism. It's about feeling awe. And if I can remind people about nature in an unforgettable and magic inducing way, they will damn well know how to add two and two together. If you love it, save it!
Some years ago, China scholar and environmentalist Orville Schell, confronted me with an undeniable irony. Back in 1996, when I started photographing hurricane waves, some tiny portion of what I was capturing wasn’t pure nature. Without realizing it, every wave I photographed was nature as incrementally impacted by the effect of global warming. Bigger storms, more rain, slower forward movement—hurricanes were different, and so inevitably waves were different. And getting more different. My work has the strange distinction of celebrating nature and marking its destruction.
CH: There's something very destructive about water this powerful but its destructive power is also transformational. Do you feel that working with hurricane waves as a core subject in your work is timely in other ways too, for example with emotional crises, social change, dating crises, political meltdowns, nukes and news headlines, etc—all the wild things that are happening on the planet as we move into the 2020s?
CR: The things you mention are today’s anxiety inducers. Some feel big but are of relatively small scale: Like the millennial dating crisis. Others are big time existential issues: Like nuclear proliferation. End-of-the-world stuff has to be looked at differently than anything else. Or should I say end-of-humankind stuff? After all, the world will roll on as it has for a long time—without us.
Here’s the thing. In the so-called Dark Ages, I bet anything there was some equivalent to today’s millennial dating crisis. We bipeds are built for crazy. And I think the plague might have seemed a lot like nuclear proliferation does now. That end-of-humankind thing. The problem is that now, from where I stand, it really seems like humankind is at, or past, the inflection point from which we cannot recover. Imagine the Renaissance and moon landings disappearing from history as part of the next non-human era. That’s right. The next non-human era. We are so narcissistic that we think the world revolves around us. We are wrecking our own habitat. It’s time to take to the streets. Or make very big waves and scare people. WM
Caia Hagel is the co-author of the groundbreaking book Girl Positive, editor-in-chief of SOFA magazine, and a speaker on innovation, culture, the internet and the future.