PORTLAND — An aquamarine churn of pixellated waves stands just outside the feature exhibition space at the Portland Museum of Art on an 8-foot screen, a visual teaser for what lies within. It’s a high-tech tangent by an artist whose career has been built largely on low-tech work: Clifford Ross, whose assiduous devotion to mechanical photography techniques has produced images that toy with perception in often disarming ways.
A tie that binds is the wave itself; whether moving or still, much of Ross’s career lies in the mercurial flux of the sea. Just inside the exhibition, a survey that spans more than two decades of his work, are the images for which he’s best known: dozens of silvery photographs, made between 2000 and 2008, of the ocean’s stormy heaving (each is titled “Hurricane,” with a lengthy roman numeral beside it, suggesting at least dozens of permutations).
A helpful label on the wall explains that Ross made them on Long Island with a hand-held camera, often wading in waist deep in a wetsuit and tethered to dry land by a long cord, just in case. Whatever his tribulations in the chilly water, the real work happened afterward; in the exhibition catalog, Ross tells the art historian David Lubin that 95 percent of the pictures’ final form is the result of complex darkroom alchemy, a truth that belies — or maybe reinforces — the images in front of you.
As a suite, they’re elemental, immediate, almost primordial — as immersive as a still image can reasonably be. Thick froth at a wave’s lip dissembles into airborne droplets, each one bizarrely crisp; heavy, cascading walls of water appear as though carved with ridges, flash-frozen in place. They’re so real as to be unreal, which, I think is the point.
It’s about here that you realize Ross’s pictures are about photography as much as they are about the sea, or hurricanes, or anything else; and that mediation, whether chemically or digitally, is Ross’s real project. Mediated nature is a genre unto itself, and it’s hard not to see highly manipulated, unnatural wilderness imagery as a critique of humanity’s increasing estrangement from the natural world. Ross’s pictures fit the bill. In other parts of the exhibition, wave images are printed on wood veneer, which dissociates them even from conventional photography and underscores, maybe, an environmental critique.
But the work also fits into a long, sometimes dubious tradition. You can hardly be in Portland looking at pictures of the sea without thinking of Winslow Homer at his studio a few miles south in Prouts Neck, painting the relentless assault of the sea on the stony shore just a few dozen feet from his window. Homer, a master, found in the ocean’s tumult a kind of mirror for his own inner turmoil, though a good many of his peers had not the same depth. I’m thinking of artists like William Trost Richards, whose pictures of stormy shores had a sameness that put them precariously close to genre painting; in his time, there were hundreds of examples. Engaging with these histories is not to be done unselfconsciously, a lesson Ross knows well. His pictures pull you close to feel that distance — between nature and its idealized, cloying portrayals — all the more acutely.
Much of his career has been spent photographing two places and things: The Long Island shore, and Mount Sopris in Colorado. Sprinkled throughout the show are a smattering of experiments that highlight Ross’s technical interventions — inverted trees from the mountain’s foot, printed in negative; a towering wave split across three wooden panels (“Wood Wave XLIX,” 2017).
In one space, three huge photographs of the mountain appear to rebut Ross’s anti-naturalist argument. Identically framed, they capture the scene with varying weather and light. A first thought might be that they’re an homage to Monet, who painted the same scene over and over in different conditions, making the subject of his pictures less a place than time itself.
With their heroic framing — the mountain towers over a lake in the foreground, doubled in its reflection; trees fringe the edge; clouds mass in every shade above — the pictures have more in common with American Romantic painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, who saw in the American landscape of the 19th century a pure and promised land, touched by the divine.
One picture, of the mountain’s near slope bathed in a beatific glow, is particularly Bierstadtian, a dubious honor at best: Bierstadt’s embrace of Manifest Destiny, the belief that North America was given to the citizens of the fledgling United States as a gift by God himself, whomever else might have been there first, made him a particularly dangerous propagandist.
Look closely and you’ll see more clues: Ross, uncannily, has made in these giant pictures a hyper-real tableau of impossible detail. Every element is in sharp focus, from the fine ridges of the faraway peak to the foreground leaves to the tiny cabins on the lake’s far shore. It feels almost shrink-wrapped, idealized into sterility — an apt parallel for the rosy visions of another time, and just as unrelated to truth. With his camera, Ross brings those visions up to date and deflates them for the sunny fakery, drained of complexity, that they were.
CLIFFORD ROSS: SIGHTLINES
Through Jan. 2. Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org