A Contemporary Take on the Sublime in the Work of Four Photographers
“For an object or an image to possess beauty does not mean that it is empty of meaning or shallow,” the renowned photographer David Maisel has said. “In fact, beauty can be incendiary; it can be subversive; it can make us cringe.” If what Maisel says is true, the natural landscape, with its ready invocation of the sublime, is a subject ripe for such twisted and challenging interpretations.
Maisel himself provides an excellent illustration of how an image can be at once formally gorgeous and conceptually sinister. His aerial photographs of the destruction humanity has wrought on the planet are initially abstract—dumped chemicals read as jewel tones, looping highways are framed as precisely as if their curves had been painted on canvas.
Maisel is but one artist wrestling new meaning from the subject of the landscape, one of the oldest traditions in the canon of fine art. In recent years, Penelope Umbrico’s practice has focused on digital technologies and obsessive post-production techniques, treating the landscape as a venue for artful media criticism. To create her multi-colored mountain views, Umbrico captures images of works by masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson with her iPhone and runs them through photo apps like Afterlight, often choosings filters that ape the chemical processes of analog photographs. Part refutation of the idea of the artist as master in fine art, part meditation on the nature of nostalgia, Umbrico’s works contain images of a refracted, technicolor-dream quality.
The dreamlike is also a resonant subject for Joshua Dildine; though the artist doesn’t exclusively work through the consideration of landscapes, his evocative gestural paintings—often worked into, and on top of, still photographs—do often provide treatments of such material. Vaguely suggestive of a shimmering sci-fi universe just beyond the painting’s edge, Dildine’s vibrant works lift a veil between the seen and the unseen. So, too, do the treated photographs of Christopher Russell, whose ghostly, delicate images view woods and seascapes through an eye at once reverent and playful. But where Dildine paints with the abstract painter’s brush in loose, colorful strokes, Russell etches carefully away at his captured images, exploiting and mirroring the particular way in which light hits a lens.