JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 photographic works, displayed in the front gallery space either unframed against white walls or as sculptural objects. All of the works are UV prints on Dibond with birch plywood, some with additional tempered glass, artificial rocks, resin, bark, synthetic turf, fluorescent lights, concrete blocks, and bottled water. The works hung on the walls range in size from 11×14 to 43×40 and are available in editions of 5+1AP. The more sculptural works range in size from 38x24x24 to 72x43x8 and are each unique. All of the works were made in 2017. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Mark Dorf’s smart new show digs into a deceptively complicated question – what might landscape photography be in the 21st century? If we offer an overly simplistic, kneejerk answer to his inquiry – that a landscape photograph is an image of nature – we risk missing the slippery nuances of what “nature” actually means in our ever-changing contemporary world. Aside from a very few remote places preserved in our National Parks, virtually any vista we might see, at least in America, is to some extent manmade. Perhaps it shows us the sprawl of a bustling city, or clearcut farmland that used to be covered by forest generations ago, or a glacier melting too fast due to climate change, but in each case, the view isn’t entirely “natural” – it’s been manipulated over time by the influence and encroachment, either intentional or unintentional, of humans.
Dorf’s new works thoughtfully unpack this idea of the manipulated landscape, using the image/object dichotomy of photography and the transformative power of Photoshop as his conceptual scaffolding. He starts with lush floral images taken at various botanical gardens in and around New York, each scene full of dense jungle greenery, tactile moss, and bursts of tropical color. But of course, by definition, a botanical garden is the epitome of a controlled environment, with each specimen carefully tended so as to ensure its survival so far from its natural habitat. So Dorf’s landscape source material is entirely synthetic – the plants are real, but the ecosystem he has drawn his images from is a wholly pre-packaged attraction.
From there, Dorf uses Photoshop to rework the pictures, doing so not with the sneaky invisible hand of the retoucher but with the obviousness of someone who wants to overtly break down any notion of straightforward, unaltered representation. Flattened layers pile up, thin gradient frames weave in and out of the greenery, leaves are smudged, smeared, and blurred, and flowers are cloned into stuttering repetitions, each “natural” scene dissolving into an interrupted aggregate of manipulations and reformations. There is a sense of intention in these aesthetic choices, the visual motifs of Photoshop used as signifiers of the malleability of images and their potential truths.
Many contemporary artists have effectively stopped here, allowing this kind of digital mark making and image construction to be the end product, but Dorf’s artworks go further, extending beyond this undermining of nature and exploring the three dimensionality of materials. Plywood sheets form the basis of works that lean down from the wall and angle away toward the floor, and small perpendicular appendages act like shelves, providing a handy place to rest photographic prints, sheets of glass, and other things.
Whether we call these sculptures, installations, or merely arranged systems, Dorf’s inventive photographic constructions are filled with further allusions to the artificiality of nature. The fakery (or transposition, from the title of the show) is everywhere – fake “wood” in the form of plywood and pressboard, fake plastic plants, fake grass, fake rocks (and concrete blocks that are a riff on this idea), fake water (in plastic bottles not running free in a mountain stream), and even fake light in the form of bright white fluorescent tubes. These objects are gathered into dialogue with the manipulated photographs, creating tumbling works that have real physical presence but are categorically unreal. Each and every component is a wry echo of itself, a quietly caustic consumerist reversal of what we call nature.
As Photoshop becomes recognized as the primary art making tool that it is (rather than simply a behind the scenes bolt on to photography), we are going to need to come to grips with the various aesthetic choices that it offers and the downstream implications of utilizing these options that are emerging. Dorf has chosen to embrace the inherent artificiality found in the software, and to use its hard edges and perfect gradients as methods for upending our assumptions about what a landscape photograph might be showing us, thereby setting the stage for further conceptual inversions. By presenting us with such richly layered fakeness, he has forced us to look more closely at how we’ve manipulated the world around us, our systematic precision creating a simulacrum of “nature” that is anything but natural.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $1500 and $12000, based on size. Dorf’s works have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option or those collectors interested in following up.