Trite or clichéd as it may sound, mankind's relationship to the environment has never been more contradictory than it is today. We're able to monitor nature and measure our effects upon it more accurately and thoroughly than ever before, yet our behavior towards it steadily worsens (see: BP oil leak). Three artists with solo shows in Williamsburg this fall seek out very personal communion with nature in more or less idiosyncratic ways. Whether documenting the landscape or transforming it, each is on an enigmatic quest for escape and understanding. In Ran Ortner's case, this means portraying waves in evocatively realistic detail; Stephen Mallon documents an odd seasonal marine migration; and William Lamson performs a kind of eccentric collaborative ritual with the sun. Each is successful to varying degrees, but all three produce images of arresting force.
's monumental paintings of waves in his exhibition Deep Water
at Causey Contemporary (through October 11) take up three canvases, with each detailed, swelling triptych spanning 24 feet. There are no falling or crashing waves in this series, as there have been in others, but the effect is no less bracing. In "Deep Water no.1" (2010, detail above) fragments of two waves, frothy and a light yellow-ish-green in places, smooth and a deep, dark-turquoise elsewhere, churn and tumble along their way. Because Ortner never includes views of shore, floating objects or animals, the scale of his images remains something of a mystery. These new works are composed in such a way that the direction in which the waves are flowing becomes uncertain. Though specifics of size and movement evade us, Ortner maximizes the works' tactility, building up oil paints in small layers to give the white froth on the crests of waves extra relief, catching light in unexpected twists of water as though the ocean's depths are glowing. In addition to contemporaries like the photographer Clifford Ross
, these epic waves evoke the grand landscape paintings
of the Romantics. The cinematic canvases portray the ocean as a wily giant, its movements vast, barely traceable and certainly not intelligible, no matter the scale. Ortner's immensely mysterious waves evade the facile prettiness of most seascape painting by portraying the ocean in intimate detail as an evasive and ugly threat, all shades of brackish jade and dirty blue. These could be the last sights of a surfer swept out to see by cruel tides.
Ortner's angry waters could also be point-of-view snapshots from the decommissioned MTA subway cars in Stephen Mallon
's surreal photo series Next Stop Atlantic
(at The Front Room, through October 3) as they're being plunged into the ocean. The industrial photographer followed the MTA's involvement in a project to build artificial reefs along the East Coast, committing stripped subway cars to the sea floor to provide shelter for marine life. That process, documented in the exhibition's 15 medium- to large-format color photographs, opens with the decontaminated cars stacked on a dock like shipping containers, gathering snow in bleak winter sunlight. Lifted onto barges, the iconic cars are a puzzling sight, suddenly slowed from their clanging subterranean velocity to a few swaying naughts per hour. In Mallon's crisply focused photographs, the awkward barges piled high with the tinny shells look downright biblical, the last surviving members of some extinct species of slithering underground monster crowded aboard a madman's ark.
There's an incredibly gentle rhythm to Mallon's series, too, with stage in the journey following at a plodding, measured speed befitting the huge forms in play. The pace only quickens at the end, when a massive forklift tips and knocks cars into the ocean. In "Virginia Placement" (2008), an 18-ton car flies off the barge; shot suspended in mid-air, the clunky hull has all the grace of a Hummer limousine rattling along Meatpacking District cobblestones. Nonetheless, the momentary impression of weightlessness, the anticipation of impact evoke Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris
" (1932), the inevitable splash tantalizingly withheld. A few feet away, Mallon unleashes the full force of impact in "Bellagio" (2010), with a nearly symmetrical wall of water sent shooting up as a car belly-flops into the ocean. As the reefs-to-be slip beneath the surface, shots of cars half-filled with water are the series' strangest. In "Settling" (2008, above) a car sits oddly upright at the top of the frame, with water like sluggish Bedford stop commuters pouring into its wide open doorways. En route to their very last stops, these elaborately (and expensively) manufactured objects double as time capsules, tokens from a culture trying fitfully to repair environmental damage it's done in even the most bizarre and oddly poetic ways.