Ray Mortenson, Rocks: Diptychs, Panels and Details @L. Parker Stephenson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 black and white photographic works, framed in grey and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the office area. The show includes the following:

  • 1 set of 7 gelatin silver prints (only 6 on display), 2002, overall size 19×108 inches, in an edition of 2+1AP
  • 2 diptychs (2 gelatin silver prints each), 2000, overall size 25×38 inches, in editions of 2+1AP
  • 1 diptych (1 gelatin silver print, printed at 1:1 scale on single sheet), overall size 38×52 inches, unique in this format
  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 2002, 2003, sized roughly 21×26 inches, in editions of 2+1AP
  • 1 grid of 9 gelatin silver contact prints, 2001-2003, each sized 8×10 inches, in an edition of 10 (modern prints)
  • 1 set of 7 gelatin silver contact prints, 2002, each sized 8×10 inches, in an edition of 2+1AP

A catalog of multi-panel works has been published by the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Just outside the door to this gallery, a small lettered area announces the title of the show on view inside. And as I came up the stairs and turned to see the words “Ray Mortenson Rocks” on the wall, I couldn’t help but smile at the unintended double meaning. Most obviously, this is an exhibit of Ray Mortenson’s photographs of rocks. But I also read those words in an excited fanboy voice, as an urgent graffiti-like exhortation expressing the inherent awesomeness of the photographer and his art. In this case, the two alternate readings work equally well.

Mortenson made his images of coastal rock formations near Jamestown, Rhode Island, starting in 2000, just after finishing up his delicately textured series of photographs of weeds from the same general location. And while these subjects were natural opposites of soft and hard, his fundamental aesthetic interest in their crisp, all-over detail was the same. He applied the extreme precision of his large format camera to both, working through formal exercises and compositional permutations that highlighted the worlds to be discovered in their tactile surfaces.

Many of the images here get in close to fractured rock faces, cropping out any surrounding context and centering our attention on differences in texture. Cracks and faults traverse faces, breaking up the uniformity of the surface into shards and hollowed clefts. Mixed areas of rock find one geological type intruding on another, the contrasts of color, density, and implied force offering Mortenson options for patterning and arrangement. And he transforms found stripes, striations, veins, wave forms, sedimentary layers, and gritty crumbles into abstract gestures, while flattening all-over crackled stone into something like ice.

In a few of these works, Mortenson has enlarged the images from his 8×10 negatives and printed them at 1-1 scale, effectively making the rock formations before our eyes the same size as they would have been out in nature where Mortenson found them. This choice of scale increases our sense of bracing immediacy, the clarity of the photographs making the walls of rock feel engagingly present.

Mortenson’s multi-panel works extend these ideas into pairs, groups, and sequences that visually map larger sections of rock. Meticulously aligned arrays of as many as seven prints on view here take in wide sweeps of rocky surface, where cracks can be followed, undulations twist and wander, and rock types mix and intermingle. As Mortenson includes more panels, the works become more broadly enveloping, their topographies and mappable surfaces extending out. One diptych then incorporates the 1:1 scale idea, the work’s heft and depth making the rock face feel imposingly complex.

In these multi-panel works, the exacting precision required to get the alignment of the adjacent frames just right (without distortion, angling, shifting, or much in the way of overlap from frame to frame) becomes almost as impressive as the wondrously faceted walls of rock Mortenson has selected to document. Given that many of these coastal rocks were likely shot from the beach or shoreline looking back, the technical achievement in the difficult outdoor conditions isn’t to be underestimated.

Other diptychs step back a stride or two, offering slivers of horizon, sky, or sandy beach as surrounding context. These clarify the scale of the rocks, but also encourage Mortenson to create compositions that bend upward, at oblique angles to the front faces. In one image, the striations of a whiteness recall the jittery wiggling of a seismograph, the height of the rock now towering above us. In another, tiny barnacles dot the bottom part of the rock, while bulbous formations tussle near the top. The brightness of the sky also gives Mortenson a tool to create more striking contrasts of tonality, the uniform whiteness of sky amplifying the textural darkness of the rocks.

Mortenson’s photographs are nearly always crafted with the kind of care that goes hand in hand with attentive observation, often leading to prints that feel exquisitely rigorous. These rock images follow that pattern of precision, but are also filled with a muscularity that we haven’t seen before. While we may initially be seduced by the luxurious textures and surfaces Mortenson has chosen to show us, it’s the implied power of these rocks that introduces a bit of awestruck gawking. By masterfully challenging us with hulking scale and scope, he’s tacitly reminded us of our own vulnerability.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $3000 to $20000, with one group of contact prints NFS. Mortenson’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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