The sublime is a more elusive concept than you might think. Starting life in classical antiquity as a definition of fine writing by Longinus, it morphs over the centuries into definitions that encompass everything from Edmund Burke’s natural forms that evoke terror to Immanuel Kant’s awe and fear that is aroused in us by unbounded aspects of nature colliding with the bounded forms of intellect (Kant didn’t say that, actually, but close enough). More recently, the sublime became a goal in abstract painting circa 1950 thanks to Barnett Newman, and went through a flurry of art-world redefinition a decade or two ago thanks to the late French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard of Postmodern Condition fame.
Thus the goal of curator Stephanie Dowda in “Echoes of the Sublime,” at Emily Amy Gallery through October 22, is both ambitious and admirable. Bearing in mind what the sublime has meant in more philosophically secure eras of life and thought, she sets out to find what the sublime means for American photographers in the second decade of the 21st century.
It means the same as it did in past centuries (the 20th included), only different. Dowda has elucidated brilliantly the definitions and deformations of the notion of the sublime in a contemporary moment that is not particularly friendly to notions of finely wrought style, moral elevation, or reverence in the face of unspoiled nature.
This is the sublime in an age in which sincerity is mashed up with snark. (It is also an age in which the sublime is mashed up with semiotics, but let’s skip that.)
This is evident in the wall text accompanying the awe-inspiringly geometric aerial photographs presented by Oakland photographer Ryan Hendon. He discusses, with convincing sincerity, the place of aerial photography in mediating the geometric painting of Kazmir Malevich (and so on) without ever mentioning that these particular high-altitude photographs taken between 1943 and 1945 were made as part of World War II bombing missions over Europe.
Likewise, the color photographs of San Francisco-based Megan Gorham mingle grandeur, irony and poignant intimacy (image below). Our sublime is evoked as much by the immensity of a Colorado resort’s crowded swimming pool as by the mountains rising behind it. An isolated swimmer in another pool close-up forms an emotional contrast with the logo-branded delivery truck just beyond the pool fence, reposing in a landscape that might once have been framed differently by a sublime-seeking photographer of the American West.
Those 19th-century photographic traditions of sublime landscape are returned to us by Atlanta photographer John Paul Floyd, whose liquid light emulsion prints use a process akin to that of the tintype. His studies of the boulders of Boat Rock Nature Preserve inspire all the emotions once associated with the sublime, and his description of the city-surrounded granite formations might well have pleased 18th-century aestheticians: “It is a quiet place that serves as a humble reminder of how small we are compared to the creative forces of Mother Nature.”
Portland’s Aaron Norberg, by contrast, photographs a romantic but used-up-looking landscape, in which stumps and snow-laden stubble take on a pastel quality. This effect is achieved by overlaying three exposures made with red, blue and green filters to produce a full-color image that often looks not quite natural — but only because the light had changed while the successive photographs were being taken. A century or so ago, this is how all color photographs were made.
Jeff Rich’s award-winning series “Watershed: A Study of the French Broad River Basin” (below), by contrast, is a C-print evocation of what the sublime in nature has become in the present moment. A smoky vista midway between John Martin’s 19th-century paintings of apocalypse and Albert Bierstadt’s paintings of natural immensity gives us the “Blue Ridge Paper Mill, The Pigeon River, Canton, NC.” A breathtaking moment of bloom and greenery is interrupted by the suspended chairs of the “Ski Lift, Little Pigeon River, Gatlinburg, TN.”
The paradoxes of an industrially transformed nature mediated for tourists are explored spectacularly in “Queen of the Mist,” an installation by Brooklyn-based Allyson Ross, who constructs a viewer like those found at scenic overlooks — except that here all that is seen is a light-box reproduction of a historical photograph of Niagara Falls. We not only view nature artificially, we view it through the lens of previous images.
On the other hand, it is possible to use even ludicrous creations of contemporary humanity to recapture the realization that enormous natural processes still go on their sublime way, independent of our wishes or anything we do to nature. San Francisco artist Klea McKenna’s wall piece consists of images of 40 light-sensitive paper airplanes exposed to the horizon from dawn to dusk in an abandoned World War II anti-aircraft lookout post in Marin County. The resulting abstractions capture the effects of a day’s shifting light in a site devoted to wartime surveillance, returning us to Hendon’s issues of nature, history and art, but in a completely different conceptual framework.
We cycle back to sublime sincerity in the abstractions of Atlanta photographer Lauren Hughes (image at top), whose misty dark-over-light in “Wished or Wake” recalls the painting of Mark Rothko and Newman’s 1948 assertion that “The Sublime Is Now.” Hughes’ moments of visual ambiguity remind us that this is an age in which the sublime is found within our emotional life, where it always was — even the 18th century defined it as the inner emotion of awe and terror produced by the confrontation with the objective conditions of a natural landscape. (Other, gentler landscapes could be either beautiful or picturesque, but that’s another story.)
That brings us in turn to the shadow-filled portraiture of Atlanta’s Justin Weaver, in which human beings take on something of the mystery and majesty of traditional sublime photographic landscapes, and to the fully psychologized sublime of Ashley Kauschinger, whose moments of intimate encounter are the polar opposite to the ironic aerial perspectives of Hendon, which adjoin them in the gallery.
Kauschinger, in fact, leads off the show, suggesting that Dowda has realized that the greatest insight regarding the contemporary sublime is that the constructions of the sublime all reside within human perception. Whether what we see is sincere, snarky or sublime ultimately depends on us and how we choose to frame it.