The word that kept arising as I toured the first gallery of “Clifford Ross: Sightlines” at the Portland Museum of Art (through Jan. 2) was “imminence.” This space is dedicated to black-and-white photographs of hurricane-driven waves off the coast of Long Island, and they are so up-close and personal that the sense of imminent peril they stir in the viewer is almost scary.

We can’t help but wonder what happened the second after Ross snapped these images. Was he engulfed by the waves? Knocked down and pulled into the violent surf? What happened to his large-format camera? Surely the waves smashed it onto the sand and damaged it, so how is it possible we’re even viewing the photograph that hangs in front of us? All this points to the extraordinarily visceral quality of these wave images.

Waves are one of two subjects that occupy the entirety of this exhibition. The other is Mount Sopris in the Elk range of the Colorado Rockies. These works evoke an opposite emotion, what David M. Lubin, in one of the catalog’s three superlative essays, describes as an “aura of eternity.”

The photographs featuring this peak, which Ross prints in both luxuriant technicolor and in negative form, convey the solidity, quiet majesty and age-old wisdom of the mountains. Whereas the waves are in constantly morphing motion, the mountain images feel reassuringly, peacefully still and steady.

Clifford Ross, Plate 5. “Mountain II,” 2005. Chromogenic print, 75 x 130 inches framed

In photographing these subjects again and again, Ross invokes painters whose art serialized natural wonders and objects on the landscape (Cézanne’s endless views of Mont Sainte-Victoire and Monet’s variations of haystacks in different conditions of weather and light come immediately to mind). This is no coincidence.

Ross trained as a painter during the 1970s, when the dominant movements were Abstract Expressionism and Color Field. His connection to these genres was also personal; his maternal aunt was painter Helen Frankenthaler, who has been associated with both – albeit related – schools.

Ultimately Ross broke with these styles, a move precipitated by his experience of Goya’s paintings at the Prado in Madrid. Deciding that the sort of instinctual experience he wanted to capture was not achievable through abstraction alone, despite the claims of one of his early idols, the critic Clement Greenberg, he sought a more representational expression.

Ross took up photography. But, not wanting to simply replicate a scene by freezing it on film, he approached this medium with full acknowledgement and appreciation of abstraction’s ability to convey a deeper dimension of reality beneath factual, surface representation.

This dovetailed perspective becomes inescapably apparent while inspecting the many wave photos in the exhibition’s first gallery. Moving from one image to the next, the physical elements of the surf – water, foam, spray and mist – as well as the compositions themselves, begin to abstract into something other than what they might objectively seem to be.

In “Hurricane I,” the foam dissipating from the wave’s whitecap separates at the right in a way that resembles pulls of cotton candy. The central upward spray in “Hurricane VIII” can at once appear as the fin of a sunfish breaking the water’s surface or a stand of trees on a rocky island.

The dark wall of water horizontally bisecting “Hurricane XV” looks like cliffs looming above a tumultuous sea. We can perceive “Hurricane XIX” as cumulus formations rising out of a dense cloud bank we might see from the window of a plane. In another room, the roiling foam of the breathtaking “Hurricane XXXIV” takes on the viscous quality of wax or milk, perhaps even solidifying into porcelain.

Ross also experiments with the porosity of various surfaces, from less permeable polyester film to ink-absorbing Japanese gampi-style calligraphy papers to wood veneers. Each produces distinct effects. When he transfers a cropped negative image of a section of forest surrounding Mount Sopris onto wood veneer using UV-cured ink (as in “Untitled, 2019”) the work appears from a distance as a panel of gold silk brocade.

Clifford Ross. Plate 44. “Harmonium I,” 2008. Archival pigment print50 x 41 inches framed

Something similar happens with “Harmonium I,” a pigment print on handmade paper, though here areas of brightness diminish the patterned textile-like appearance and heighten the outline of trees and leaves. The negative images that focus on portions of foliage also suddenly take on an Asian cast, recalling Japanese “floating world” paintings or Chinese ink landscapes. In the monumental triptych “Wood Wave, XLIX,” which measures over 12-by-6 feet, the droplets of the wave’s spray shimmer like gold dust.

These are all technically mesmerizing effects that transform the conventional aims of photography into something more painterly. But the enormous scale of many of these works does something else too: It imparts an air of religiosity to the subjects. The Mount Sopris images certainly recall Ansel Adams’s reverential photographs of the Rockies and Tetons.

But Lubin also draws parallels to 19th-century American landscape painting. Indeed, it’s not hard to detect, behind the Mount Sopris works, the spirits of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, or, behind the wave pieces, Winslow Homer. (In fact, I kept imagining how spectacular a show juxtaposing Homer’s seascapes and Ross’s waves would be.)

In Alexander Nemerov’s catalog essay, he also connects Ross to 19th-century German Romanticist painter Caspar David Friederich, as well as to literary lights, particularly Herman Melville and his magnum opus, “Moby Dick,” which is one of Ross’s favorite books. Both these figures were concerned with how humanity’s grandiosity – specifically the delusion that we can “conquer” or “tame” our environment – is constantly forced to bow before the awesome power of nature and, by extension, the god that created it.

Though Ross did not conceive these bodies of work with an environmental or moralizing message in mind, within the context of climate change and the string of natural disasters that continues to unspool to this day, it is not hard to view these photographs in that light.

Clifford Ross, “Light Waves IV,” 2019. Computer generated video on LED wall 8h x 4’ Portland Museum of Art, Maine, Promised gift from an anonymous donor. (The photograph represents at 18 x 18’ screen.)

If nothing else, it is impossible to ignore – in the immense scale of the works, the sublime magnificence of Mount Sopris and the wild, pounding surf – the formidable, undiluted force of nature. As such, we can both be awed and terrified: awed at the intense potency of nature and terrified by its potential wrath.

We can also be remorseful. It is becoming harder and harder in our world to deny the depredations humanity visits on our lands, oceans and atmosphere. It is equally impossible to see wildfires, tsunamis, hurricanes, mud slides and other “natural” disasters as a direct response to – perhaps punishment for – our disregard.

This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. Nov. 22 to correct the closing date of the show.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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