It's has been a while since I've been to the Laurence Miller Gallery and I am in for a surprise. "Pursuing the Sublime: Man And Nature In Contemporary Photography and Japanese Ukiyo-E Prints" is an exhibition unlike any I've been to. Through a large glass door I see a wide, framed image of a huge iceberg, snow-capped mountains, and the gathering clouds beyond. Approaching the image of the ice, I am suddenly transported back to college days, and to William Wordsworth's pursuit of the sublime. Now I'm primed for this exhibition. Standing before an image nearly six feet wide, I see not a floating chunk of ice but rather a huge glacier, extending miles back toward the mountains. Moving closer, I see tiny but clear details in the ice and landscape and dwarfed visitors along a paved path in the lower foreground. The visitors look at the glacier, mountain and clouds; as do I.
Behind me another large image: hot air balloons floating high over rock formations, caves, and tunnels, some continuously inhabited for centuries. This is Cappadocia in Turkey, a region that has long intrigued me. Now I, too, hover over the landscape in a hot air balloon, the one that carries the photographer, Luca Campigotto, and his camera.
Many of the sixteen photographs in the exhibition are striking landscapes. Even if they're not six feet wide, they feel large. Most have people in them, moving through the landscape or contemplating it. And we are free to join them. That first experience in the foyer, that invitation to step into the scene and participate in the pursuit of the sublime, keeps recurring. In another room I recognize Monument Valley and spy a tiny observer, the photographer Tweng Kwon Chi himself, sitting on a ledge, facing the horizon, taking in the vast scene. Having been to Monument Valley, I remember the feeling and now relive the thrill of taking it all in. But this first level of enjoyment isn't all that's in store.
I move slowly through the gallery rooms, varying my vantage point, so I can take in two or three walls of images, or one wall, or just a few inches of an image at a time, creating a kind of kaleidoscope experience for myself.
Among the sixteen photographs hang ten nineteenth and early twentieth century Japanese woodblock prints, many dominated by Mt Fuji. Different as the woodblock prints are from the contemporary photographs and the photographs from each other, commonalities emerges — in composition, in color tones, in natural features, in man-made features, in tiny details, in the presence of people, in the power of nature, and in theme — the pursuit of the sublime. Set against contrasts in culture, time period, and medium, these commonalities become more exciting. The press release describes this exhibition as “…five contemporary photographers in conversation with five nineteenth and early twentieth century Japanese print makers.” For me, their commonalities are the subject of the conversation which the attentive visitor can experience. If you let them, the images can show you the way.
Pursuing the Sublime: Man And Nature In Contemporary Photography And Japanese Ukiyo-E Prints Laurence Miller 20 W 57th St 3rd Fl Midtown Map 212 397 3930 laurencemillergallery.com May 5 through Sat, June 25, 2016 Hours: Wed-Sat 10 to 5:30