Clifford Ross’s Natural State

In contemporary art, much of the attention is on artists who use technology to make art about technology. So, it certainly gives pause that artist Clifford Ross’s practice is inspired by an obsessive and sincere love for unadulterated nature, while technology for him is auxiliary, simply a means to an end. For his survey at MASS MoCA, Ross, 62, presents recent and new pieces in “Landscapes Seen & Imagined,” which at its core is twofold and straightforward: a mountain panorama and rolling ocean waves. Well-versed in art history, Ross is wary of seeming staid when embracing classic portrayals of nature in art. To build on the the Western tradition, he experiments with technology to enhance his artwork, and has come upon ways to depict nature that are fresh and vivid. (He was extensively lauded in the early 2000s after inventing a high-resolution camera specifically meant to capture landscapes.) Often relying on scale, simplicity, and basic forms, the resulting art seduces viewers by conveying Ross’s own awe for his subject matter.

At MASS MoCA, the series “Mountain” revolves around a photograph of Mount Sopris in Colorado. For one part of the show, Ross superimposed the negative of the image on a 114-foot tall wooden panel. Separately, he rendered it in 65 different colors, titled Harmoniums, which serve as the basis of Harmonium Mountain I, an animated video displayed in one gallery. Harmonium Mountain, a second video work that debuted in late June, is occasionally projected onto a dozen 24-foot-high screens in MASS MoCA’s courtyard, and every screening is accompanied by a live musical performance. In a separate building, a series of black-and-white photographs of waves, collectively called Hurricane, line a dimly lit wall. An adjacent space is dark, save for two large vertical LED screens showing bird’s eye view animations of waves that shine blue light on weathered wood rafters.

Earlier this summer, we toured the museum with Ross in time for the premiere of Harmonium Mountain. This past Saturday, August 8, Oneida and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo performed the soundtrack. We recently spoke with Ross on the phone.

RACHEL SMALL: I’d love to hear about where “Landscapes Seen & Imagined” began.

CLIFFORD ROSS: I pay attention to nature. I feel something or I see something, and basically, I want to share that. I like to see if I can get other people to experience something that I think is extraordinary. And where my process started, in relation to Mount Sopris in Colorado, were the feelings I had looking at it. I tried to figure out what elements gave me that feeling. The first path I took was trying to figure out, “Could I show people the mountain?” And that’s what resulted in the high-resolution photographs.

RACHEL SMALL: What do you think made this scene different or special to you?

ROSS: I think there are several elements, in no particular order. It’s a classic scene of nature’s grandeur. When I say “classic,” it’s in and of itself beautiful and grand and powerful. It’s a simple, almost pyramidal mountain surrounded by trees and water. In the Western and European tradition, the most obvious sources of this are German Romanticism, in particular the Hudson River School. Those painters, you know, drew on the great Romantic tradition from Europe. But it’s a particularly American scene and I think when I saw it, it struck a chord in me—both as a guy looking at nature, but also because it was a classic composition, something that I love in other art.

The other thing that I only realized well after my love affair with the mountain started, is that it is actually very subtly a twin peak mountain. And since my hero is Paul Cézanne, somewhere in the back [of my mind] was lurking Mont Sainte-Victoire because he was obsessed with that mountain and painted it endlessly.

SMALL: It’s funny because Cézanne almost had this sort of technology-related approach as well. He broke his paintings down into planes of color, which is very mechanical, and perhaps related to the rise of industry at the time.

ROSS: You’re quite right–I was referring to something very simplistic in the sense of simple shaped mountain, twin peaks, somewhat—one major, one minor. But you hit on the theme that, in a way, leaps us to the video. When he was trying to analyze the mountain and what it meant to him, he literally broke down the elements and that was the path that eventually led to Cubism.

My breaking down of the mountain into elements was, of course, a quite different one in the beginning. My breaking it down was the realization that traditional cameras and traditional methods of printing did not [communicate] the grandeur for me, [which involved] my eye sort of wandering and becoming overwhelmed with all of the details. In effect, my breaking down of the mountain and reconstituting it was the opposite of what Cézanne did. It was a reassembling of the facts, as accurately as I could, so that people could stare at a print and I could very directly evoke the feelings by giving people the mountain.

Eventually, I fell madly in love with the actual process of making animation. I began to think about building an animated world. I wanted color, movement. I wanted abstract forms to elicit the response in people that the mountain did. When you bring up Cézanne, I actually never made such a direct connection, but the late paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire, he really broke up the foreground and the sky and the mountain into those facets. And those facets truly are the facets of my Harmonium video.

SMALL: During the tour on-site, I mentioned that the waves reminded me of pointillism. I feel that, in a lot of your work, there are parallels with visual art and the technology around modernizing and industry that was developing towards the beginning of the 20th century.

ROSS: That [reference] really caught me. Although I’m very aware of art history as a generating force in my own work, I reflect on my own experiences with older art, the things that I adore, or the things that intrigue me, drive me—[pointilist George Seurat’s] La Grand Jatte, of course, is a staggering picture. But Seurat has never had as big an influence on me directly as Cézanne. But you hit on something that I think is sort of critical—the interesting thing about the wave cathedral is that the wave cathedral is made up, first and foremost, of two sculptures: massive blocks of LED screens. Originally, I hadn’t thought of them as having weight and mass and sculptural power. In fact, I reconfigured them when we were installing, so you could feel their weight pushing against the beams. And on those screens, it’s a grid–it’s not Seurat, it’s not late Monet, it’s a grid, which is birthed out of a digital attitude towards imaging. I never lined up the pixels of the digital world—though in this case not just pixels, because we created some proprietary software so each pixel would be a LED light. It never dawned on me that, in a way, it was a reflection back to pointillism.

I’ll throw in one last thing because it related both to the wave cathedral and the courtyard: Immersion is a key element of how we experience the world. As abstract as they are, the way they’re actually functioning involves immersing the viewer. That act alone, as a gesture, is an embrace with my imagery that I think is very connected to feeling when we’re experiencing the real world. The great thing about immersive [art] is that you’ve freed the human mind, I think, to imagine an experience more like what happens day to day.

SMALL: That also has to do with one’s subjective experience and memories with certain natural scenes, maybe?

ROSS: Oh sure. None of this was conscious with me, but as I began working on those abstract videos of waves, I had not yet envisioned at all that they were going to be part of an immersive experience. But, of course, I realized that the wave cathedral, even if it’s abstract, it may be closer to how I feel in the middle of the water, shooting those wave [photographs].

SMALL: It’s interesting that you are using technology to portray nature in a new way.

ROSS: It’s very odd because this moniker that got dumped on me is sort of “Mr. Technology.” It’s almost laughable because, five and 10 and 20 years from now, what seems like fancy technology today will look old fashioned. What I did up at MASS MoCA in 10 years will seem as old fashioned as oil painting. There’s a feeling I want to get from my own world of experience, and it’s always based on nature. That’s what has captured my imagination. All of it is at that service. People talk to me about fractals, [but] I’m not even sure I know what a fractal is.

SMALL: I don’t think I know what a fractal is either…

ROSS: Well, we can both Google it! It has something to do with shapes which, I don’t know never repeat or repeat endlessly or…some such. The surprise is not just seeing what I’ve made; the best surprise is finding other creative people who want to come play. And you know, it’s beautiful to watch people’s faces. I never take it for granted. I’m always surprised watching people’s eyes grow big when something happens on the screen–because that’s how I am! And the thrill is based on surprise. No matter how many times I see that thing, I literally can’t hold it in my head. So I sort of am amazed that it has become something separate from me at this point.

SMALL I feel like good art never stays with the artist in any form. It can be a sign that it is really great if it takes on lives of its own in different people’s minds.

ROSS: I think any piece only begins to live once a viewer is interacting with it. They bring in their own past, their own baggage, their dreams, and then if you’ve made a good piece of art, what you’ve tried to do is part of the package. But the takeaway for anyone, looking at art, to some extent, is that a good piece of art will also work as a mirror. And they end up looking back at themselves.