Catching the Perfect Wave: Clifford Ross at the Parrish

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A couple of months ago, I paid a visit to artist Clifford Ross’s studio to see the work in progress for his show Light | Waves on view until October 15 at the Parrish Art Museum on Long Island. Waves are Ross’s inspiration, and for more than twenty years, he’s been gripping his camera and wading into the ocean foam off the East End to photograph the breakers hurling themselves onto the beach during hurricane season. “Ultimately, I realized that I was reflecting on memories from my childhood—being slammed by the waves off the coast of Long Island when I was body surfing,” Ross has said.

Installation view of Light | Waves at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill. Photo courtesy Issara Panchapornphol

When it comes to standing in the surf—along with everything else—there’s nothing quite like “being there.” But that hasn’t stopped Ross from trying to convey that visceral experience through visual means. A 1974 graduate of Yale, he made his way as a sculptor and Color Field painter until, as he describes it, he realized that his scene was “like an orange that has had the juice squeezed out of it,” and decided he needed to “get back to the world.” For him, that meant turning to photography. His series of detailed portraits of Colorado’s Mount Sopris, for which he is best known, was recorded on the nine by eighteen–inch negatives of the R1, his patented large-format view camera (the “R” stands for “Ross”). In photo after photo the double-domed mountain rises majestically, the details of surrounding vegetation coming out crisply even if miles from the camera’s lens. Printed big—about five by ten feet at the largest—one gets the impression that Ross hopes you’ll mistake his pictures of the mountain for the real thing.

But to Ross these trompe l’oeils aren’t entirely satisfying. “My memories of mountains are always more vivid and alive than my photographs of them are,” he says. Hurricane Waves on Wood, one of the wave series on view at the Parrish—comprising photographs printed on maple-veneered plywood panels—is meant to recover some of the tactile charm of real life. In his studio, Ross encouraged us to touch a trio of panels he’d mounted on the wall, to feel their grain. Each sheet of the warm maple veneer was specially chosen for its figure, which interacts gracefully as well as jarringly with the dancing form of a wave splashed across it. Six pieces from Hurricane Waves on Wood are on view in the Parrish’s Harriet and Esteban Vincente Gallery, printed with sun damage–resistant UV-cured ink—the kind of ink used for billboards.

Installation view of Wood Wave LXXX (variant A) and Wood Wave LXXXIII at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill. Photo courtesy Derek Piech

To create the second series on view at the Parrish, Digital Waves, Ross and his team used mathematics and computer rendering software. Ross wanted to understand and illustrate what’s really going on, physics-wise, when a wave is crashing. What they’ve created looks something like what you’d see in a Hollywood studio during post-production for a film set at sea: an animated “wave” made up of countless tiny digital balls rebounding chaotically off a virtual wall. The viewing angle can be swiveled and zoomed so that the blooms of “liquid light”—as a studio assistant put it—are abstracted, looking like the frantic, fractal splatterings of Jackson Pollock, one of Ross’s Long Island influences.

Two iterations of Digital Waves play on huge LED screens like the ones that light up Times Square. One screen, a roughly seventeen-by-seventeen-foot square illuminates the museum’s lobby, and a diptych of approximately fifty–foot strips is sited outside under the building’s deep eaves, visible to passing cars on the Montauk Highway. The videos are silent, but Ross hopes “people will hear by watching the waves.”

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Clifford Ross, Wave XLIX (Wood), triptych, 2017. Cured inkjet print on wood 148 × 225”. Photo courtesy Clifford Ross Studio

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