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Thursday, June 30, 2011

New Paltz Photographer Captures Art and Regional Flavor


The image of the Hudson Valley landscape has a long tradition in visual art. Thomas Cole, one of the early transplanted artists to the area, captured what historians have called “the essence of nature” in three of his most famous landscapes, completed circa 1825: A View of Fort Putnam, Lake with Dead Trees, & Kaaterskill Upper Fall Catskill Mountain. In the midst of the Romantic thrust that had been imported from Europe before the democratic project overtook art of the United States in a tidal wave of Realism, painters like Cole found refuge in the Hudson Valley. This mountainous region, situated between New York City and Albany, was a reminder of sorts that new beginnings were possible.

Contemporary photo artist Steve Jordan carries on this tradition. His Summer Field, Ridge (above) updates the scenery of the Valley landscape by releasing the representation of Nature (with a capital N) from the confines of the pristine, in order to depict a populated landscape, terrain that has been tilled & worked by humans. In relation to Jordan’s work as a whole, this particular image is exceptional, since most of the rest indeed excludes any human presence from his hyper-realistic landscapes, thus portraying Nature as that untouched secret-keeper who only speaks in the most remote environs that are devoid of any sign of civilization, thereby limiting the artistic expression thereof to some form of revelation. Such is the Romantic formula for the production of art: Nature speaks when no one else is listening. But here, fortunately, Jordan thematically surpasses that long exhausted trend & says something else & something more.

The image before us delivers the crispness of ante meridiem light that illuminates the fog which  in turn baths the Walkill Valley & the distant bluffs with its nebulous corpulence, beckoning our gaze while we inhale the heady aroma of the recently tilled field under our nose, as if some hard labor had been carried out just before the first solar vectors of the morning broke over the horizon. The small red barn, stationed in the right third of the middle ground, links the distant summits in the left-third of the background to the field in the fore, imbuing the landscape with a human presence: The Work of Man.

Since the presence of human labor in Jordan’s photo art is largely outweighed by the hyper-realistic representation of Nature as a refuge from the disenchanted lifestyle offered by the modern city, his art is more popular than populist. However, it would be erroneous to classify Jordan’s work as an updated version of popular Romantic art & just leave it at that. This tech-savvy artist offers his potential buyers the opportunity to select the medium on which his images will be printed. His web site allows viewers to purchase a copy of an image on “non-tradition media such as watercolor paper or canvass”. Several months ago, I stopped by his gallery & took in those images printed on canvass, catching a whiff of the mossy trunks high up in the mountains, feeling the moisture of those streams, the jaggedness of the cliffs that jut from the Shawangunks in the most breathtaking examples of tectonic faulting.

As I stood there lost in Jordan’s canvass, deeply moved by a mysterious & intimate feeling of communion with Nature, I suddenly heard a foreign exclamation slice through the silence: “What an amazing painting!” Only after a matter of five minutes or so did I realize that I was the only one in the gallery & that those words had come out of my own mouth. What had provoked me to say that!? I felt deceived, & thus I felt that I understood Steve Jordan’s art on a deeper level. This hyper-realistic image had convinced me that what I saw hanging on the wall was not a photograph, but a more-than-real painting of the landscape, if not the landscape itself. I felt ‘the essence of nature’ with all its terrestrial aroma, its avian prattle & light inflating the fog envelope my being like the smoke of a pagan ritual.

But, what was hanging in a frame before me was not a painting of the landscape, much less the landscape itself; it was a photograph that surreptitiously acquired a painterly quality due to the medium on which it had been printed. Steve Jordan comes off as a sharp businessman, & this leads me to believe that he prints photographs on canvass because it is lucrative. Therefore, I can’t help but wonder why someone would prefer to view a photograph printed on canvass...   What pleasure is to be had by deceiving oneself into believing that a photograph is a painting? In this age when hyper-realistic visual imager bombards us from all directions, have we come to believe that a photograph is more representative of reality than painting? Why would we prefer to look at a photograph the way we look at a painting? I sit here gnawing on these questions, as I recall that visit to his gallery several months back. From time to time, I look out the window at the Shawangunks in order to verify that those mountains are still where I last left them & that on Jordan’s canvass what looks back at me is not a painting, but a photograph.

Joseph Mulligan
New Paltz, New York

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