In her celebrated 1951 book The Sea Around Us, the renowned ecologist and marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote of the human relationship to the ocean: “Moving in fascination over the deep sea he could not enter, he found ways to probe its depths….” It’s a text that springs to mind when viewing the latest works by Brooklyn-based artist Oliver Jeffers, on view this month at Lazarides gallery in London.
From across the room, Jeffers’s paintings look like simple seascapes, lushly rendered but straightforward. It’s only when you step closer to a piece, like Fathom Seascape no. 10 (2015), that you notice there are numbers hovering over the ocean’s surface, mathematical digits in elegant typography, charting unknown measurements—depth, perhaps, or temperature. It’s fitting that Jeffers’s new exhibition at Lazarides in London is titled “Measuring Land and Sea.”
Many of the show’s most striking pieces are from the artist’s “Fathom Seascape” series, combining classical seascapes with technical measurements, a juxtaposition of wild nature and practical science. But as the show’s title indicates, Jeffers doesn’t restrict his subject to the ocean. Some of his paintings apply the same concepts to the wide open expanses of a grassy field, the vastness of a mountain range, the barren slope of a snow-covered hill. These pieces, part of Jeffers’s “Protracted Landscape” series, evoke a similar sense of wonder in regard to the immensity of the natural world. Looking at them, the viewer feels, for an extended moment, like the curious explorer from Carson’s prose, moving in fascination over a deep sea we are unable to enter.
Both Jeffers’s landscapes and seascapes speak to the human impulse to understand things, to label and categorize, even in the face of a body of water so deep and unknowable as the ocean. Gazing upon the scenes of “Measuring Land and Sea,” you can’t help but feel distracted by the numbers; you might wish, for a moment, that the digits weren’t there so that you could lose yourself in the sea, or the field, or the mountains. That’s exactly the feeling Jeffers means to convey. Sometimes, his works suggest, more information is just more information—facts and figures don’t always help us understand something better. Sometimes, as even an expert like Carson would have agreed, you can learn more about the ocean by taking the time to sit and look, to meditate on it rather than taking its measurements.
“Measuring Land and Sea” is on view at Lazarides Rathbone Gallery, London, Nov. 20th – Dec. 23rd, 2015.
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May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory