Truth in today’s surreal landscape

By Ashley Jonas

Photo: ‘Silver Lake Operations # 1’ by Edward Burtynsky at DAI

The third and final installment of the Dayton Art Institute’s Year of the Classical Elements explores the theme of the sublime in contemporary landscape photography with Ravaged Sublime: Landscape Photography in the 21st Century, which opened Oct. 15 and runs through Jan. 8, 2017. The exhibition features internationally recognized artists Edward Burtynsky and Richard Mosse. Nearly 30 large-scale photographs draw us in by way of aesthetic attraction while ultimately challenging our perceptions and implications in relation to disaster, conflict, and the larger global

Much like the word “awesome,” the word “sublime” has become a part of everyday vernacular, which takes the word far from its essence. A definition of the sublime may evade us. The qualities of the sublime are larger than us, so putting it to language almost seems counterintuitive. But here we will define the sublime as the feeling of encountering something so great and vast that our comprehension outside of sensation leaves us in a state of awe. Landscape photography has a history and tradition of evoking the sublime. Mosse and Burtynsky not only offer to us the sublime, but do so in a way that asks us to face our notions of truth. “Photographs are not synonymous with truth, and landscapes similarly possess multiple meanings,” says Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth, Dayton Art Institute’s Kettering exhibition coordinator and curatorial associate. “Both are imbued with cultural significance that is ever-changing, always evolving, and therefore always relevant.”

In entering Ravaged Sublime, we are confronted by Richard Mosse’s “C47 Yukon.” The large-scale photograph of a crashed and abandoned transporter aircraft on the tops of the snow-covered Yukon Territory takes us to a remote place to show us a relic of calamity. Like all the work in Ravaged Sublime, the image also performs another task. It foreshadows our experience of being transported from our everyday life into the surreal worlds that are revealed by Mosse and Burtynsky’s work. 

Mosse’s landscapes are fantastical. The hot pink, intensely saturated blues, and bold purples turn flora into brittle plastic, or sweet and sticky cotton candy. The natural world is turned artificial and consumable. There is a new life or existence embedded within them. Logic melts away. The landscape is bizarre and pungent, exhilarating and frightening. In the work “Invasive Exotics, foliage moves and invades, graceful and powerful, like a lioness. It could be argued that context is irrelevant, that we don’t need to know where these images were taken, or what the political, economic, or social climate is like, but the images hold a kind of transcendental power over us; we fall down a hole of deep curiosity and longing to know the unknown.

Burtynsky’s photographs often read as massive monumental drawings. The lines we see are precise in their placement. The marks made are repetitive, direct, and confident. Colors strikingly contrast the absence of hue in the blacks and grays. The clarity of physical minutia turn tire tracks into the erasure of land. The relationships between figure and ground are blurred or flipped, such as in “Oxford Tile Pile #5,” an image made of thousands of discarded tires that are piled atop one another and stop existing as objects and become the landscape itself. Burtynsky’s images are, at their core, about action and outcome; his lens becomes a microscope.

Just as the entrance of Ravaged Sublime is meaningful of intention, so is the exit. We depart by walking sandwiched between Burtynsky’s images of unbroken factory lines and production sites that make possible mass consumerism. The strange thing is that these images, despite there being no attempt to conceal their subject matter, are beautiful. In Burtynsky’s “Manufacturing #17,” we are presented with an image of hundreds of workers in a chicken processing plant…

…Only one of them (that we can tell) is wearing protective gloves. But what we see can transcend our shock. We can see actual and implied lines that jettison documentation, organic forms that are arranged in unity and color that explode from one perspective to arrest our attention.

These two artists use landscape photography paradoxically in that they attract and repulse; they conceal in order to reveal. Mosse’s use of rich textures and alluring colors blanket reality and heighten visual sensations in order to bring us into a conflict we might wish to ignore. Burtynsky’s images show us, through the literal mark-making and erasing of the earth, our actions are not without consequence. The works function on multiple layers. We are brought to these layers by way of beauty, another word that we throw around a lot.

Ravaged Sublime: Landscape Photography in the 21st Century runs through Sunday, Jan. 8 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. in Dayton. The exhibition is free for museum members, non-member admission is $14 for adults; $11 for seniors (60+), students (18+ with ID), active military, and groups (10 or more); $6 for youth (ages 7-17); and free for children (ages 6 and under). For more information, please visit


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Ashley Jonas is an artist, curator and writer. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Florida, she went on to receive a Master of Fine Art from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ashley currently lives and works in Dayton. Her artistic and curatorial practices are rooted in an everlasting search for moments of wonder. Reach Ashley at

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