Clifford Ross: Landscape Seen & Imagined
By CAIA HAGEL, AUG. 2015
When I was a little girl, my brother and I used to make drawings together. One day he was drawing particularly ferociously beside me, crumpling the paper up in frustration and starting over, and over. After a while I asked him what was a wrong—and he told me, “I’M TRYING TO DRAW GOD BUT THE PAPER’S TOO SMALL!”
I was reminded of this particular flavour of the hero’s quest while wandering the extensive spaces of the MASS MoCA—the transformed industrial complex, now home of some of the most exciting art in America, which looms soulfully over the quiet working class town of North Adams, Massachusetts—where Landscape Seen & Imagined, the mid-career retrospective of the artist Clifford Ross, blasts its large-scale photographic ode to nature with the same zeal: the desire to capture the sublime.
Ross may reference Ansel Adams as a forefather of his heroic journey but Ross’s own recording of nature is no such pastoral jaunt. Its enormous photographs, many created on the R1 camera (a machine he’s invented with innovative scientists that is the highest resolution camera on earth with a viewfinder much more sophisticated than the human eye), splash energetically across the grandiose rooms. In the opening section of the main MASS MoCA building, we see Harmonium Mountain in several harmonic incarnations. These are studies of a mountain first in hyper-realism, then in variations on abstractions that include several colour washes through a detail of this mountain scene, a 3-panel digital recreation of the several colour washed mountainscape details—a decomposition that collapses further into a pixelized story via the phone app he’s created—as well as Sopris Wall I, a 24’ high x 114’ long sepia study of this abstraction printed onto raw wood that takes up the entire wall of MASS MoCA’s tallest gallery.
In an adjacent building, a whole upper floor space specially renovated for this exhibition is devoted to a similar study of the hurricane waves he’s been recording since 1996—a space appropriately titled Wave Cathedral. Here, the thrill of the blown-up black and white wave images, mounted and framed in white in this airy white expanse, make the violence of hurricanes seem sensual and alluring. These photographs give way to two ceiling-high LED panels whose millions of lights simulate the movement and feeling of large bodies of water. Standing by them under the low rafters of a vaulted ceiling, we get a visceral sense of water’s wild, mercurial spirit, a vertiginous feeling that we’re left drowning in for several moments of pitch black before the loop begins again.
Water is a powerful metaphor for the alchemy that Ross subjects reality to. In both exhibition spaces, his signature hyper-realistically rendered nature scenes, so hard-won, are juxtaposed with his abstractions of these same nature scenes, a creation and destruction opus that mimics what only God can do: Life and Death. It is by being moistened and entering the dissolution that Ross’s realism becomes more psychisized, made into soul, by its sinking away from fixations in literalized concerns—for water, real and metaphorical, is the special element of reverie, reflective images, hints of the invisible intrinsic signature of Life and its ceaseless ungraspable flow. Far from serene, these tangos with landscape are awe-inspiring with a feeling, somewhere, of Herculean labour.
When I sit down with Ross over homemade lemonade in the museum’s café, he tells me more about the alchemy at work in his oeuvre. The realism studies, he says, so satisfying for their sharp precision and minute detail, fail to capture the aura of the scene; the thing that makes it spiritual. Realism must be broken down to deliver a higher experience, he says. Ross works at this decreation in many ways; by moving from small to large and back to small scale again, by doing intimate isolated visual and digital studies, by using printing, colouring and other Photoshop and dark room techniques, by adding music and pixelating scenes with LED lights and phone apps. These experimental deaths must go on until the perfect original natural setting begins to release its mystical essence. “When I go abstract, I go into fiction,” the artist reflects, “But this fiction is meant to explore reality, to clean up the things I missed with reality. In fact I’m not really interested in the photograph, it’s not even about the camera. It’s about giving the viewer a very moving experience, which they can’t have if they aren’t using their imagination and through that, believing in the vision”. Between the seen and the imagined, remembering and forgetting, nightworld and dayworld; the creation and decreation of ‘the real’ that we are poetically subjected to in this work engages us to receive ‘the sublime’.
For all this romanticism, Ross has an avatarism about him as well. He fingers the screen of his iPhone 6 and tells me what a magical invention he believes the iPhone to be. “I fell totally in love with it at first sight”, he gushes, “I watch movies on it and the resolution is so high that I can see Lawrence of Arabia appearing in the distance at exactly the same time my friends, who are watching the movie at the same time on an HD home movie screen, can”. We talk about Augmented Reality, 3D and Oculus, and Ross confesses that while he’s fascinated with these advents in technology, he is not a believer in them in the form they’re currently in. He explains this with a concrete example. “We only feel comfortable sitting here at our table in the museum’s café because we’ve already spatially assessed the room and know what’s going on behind us, even if we can’t see it,” and though I would never have thought of this, I know that he’s right. “Rembrandt painted the back of the head. You don’t see it but it’s there, which is part of what makes his paintings so realistic and believable. There have been so many beautiful attempts to create a believable digital world but ultimately, head sets isolate people from their environment and their existential reality, and digital aesthetics are fake. Digital worlds aren’t satisfying yet because they aren’t believable”. This dissatisfaction only intrigues Ross more. “The things I criticize the most are the same things I end up embracing,” and before we get up to join the dinner party, where we’ll play an identity game that degenerates reality even further, he states, “I’m going to break down the code of Oculus”.
I slip out of this contemporary cathedral feeling strangely altered. Inspired by a mosaic of creative predecessors and works, including Henry Fox Talbot, the British photography pioneer, Kant and his philosophies of the sublime, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1959 sci-fi masterpiece Sirens of Titan, symphonic music and radical technology, Ross attacks his art with the well-rounded spirit of the Renaissance, where visual artists were also physicians, philosophers and inventors—ambitious, provocative polymaths only a finger stretch from God. 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.