Western Romance aims to create a dialogue between David Benjamin Sherry’s photographs of vast landscapes saturated with synthetic color and the tradition of Western landscape photography. The subjects appear at first glance to be similar, but intentions are different. Sherry’s photographs are more about color and light than capturing the grandness of the western frontier. Or, rather, in a bit of a reversal of tradition, color and light are the subject, and landscape only the medium. Or most likely to me, the subject and medium are purposefully ambiguous. These photographs have as much in common with Robert Irwin and James Turrell as they do with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
Sherry’s photographs are analogue, created in a dark room without digital manipulation. He uses techniques not unlike those used by the turn of the century masters, but purposefully “distorts” the color of the image. The dichotomy between his traditional craft and the synthetic color creates an ambiguity, a coincidentia oppositorum, characteristic of romanticism and just about every other tradition that seeks knowledge in contradictions rather than absolutes. The psychedelic, artificial tonality of a vast wilderness also tends to remind us of our own romantic delusions, without denying the necessity of those delusions. We are meant to question the Western romance, although to this writer it’s unclear what “Western” refers to; the obvious answer is the Western United States, but I think the show presents a better argument for the Western world in general. This is just another layer of ambiguity. These layers in Sherry’s work are in keeping with Novalis’ aim to romanticize the world, which includes exploring meaning through contradiction in order to arrive at something like truth. Which doesn’t actually exist except in contingency, which seems like a riddle but really isn’t.
Goethe was ahead of his time in realizing that the sensation of color is influenced by our own perceptions. He questioned the Newtonian absolutist model that considered color as purely physical phenomena, existing independently of those who see it. We now know that nothing exists independently (haven’t we always felt this in our bones?). Reality, science now tells us, is the sum total of all our consciousness’s, although we certainly don’t live like we’re aware of that little fact. Intelligent children ask the frustrating question: what if when you see, say, blue, I see red? Sherry’s use of synthetic color aims to question our traditional perceptions of reality. To echo the clever child’s question: does anyone actually see the landscape as Sherry’s photographs present it? Maybe. But maybe there’s no answer, only the important question.
This brings us to another theme of Sherry’s work: the environment. Works Crown of the Continent or Climate Vortex Sutra (for Allen Ginsberg) are saturated in a fiery orange and red. Goethe was also one of the first to systematically analyze the effect colors have on our moods. Red can invoke anger, and these red works are an angry reminder, albeit with subtlety, that wild spaces are rapidly disappearing. The calm tonality of Sherry’s photographs seems to implore a comfort with this apocalyptic fact, a comfort all too consistent with much of humanity’s blasé attitude toward our self-destruction. We’ve set the house of nature on fire, forgetting we have to live in it.
Environmentalism is a well-trodden theme in contemporary art. And ambiguity can be a solipsistic mind game. It’s unclear whether Sherry’s photographs add meaningful knowledge to our world, at least in the Western sense of that word, but they do bring about the question, which may be the point.
Matthew Metzger is an artist, designer and furniture maker based in Cincinnati. His paintings are represented locally by Miller Gallery, and his furniture by Voltage, as well as other galleries and design showrooms nationally. His website is www.metzgerfinearts.com.