EDUCATOR'S GUIDE: SEA CHANGE, The Seascape in Contemporary Photography


Sea Change: The Seascape in Contemporary Photography

The term sea change is defined as a change caused by the sea or a marked transformation. This exhibition proposes a changing, end-of-the-millennium understanding of the sea as expressed through contemporary photography's renewal of the seascape in art. Covering seven-tenths of the planet, the sea remains a rich, time-honored motif that conveys equal parts mystery and discovery in the works of the selected artists. The compositions that comprise this project are limited to the most basic elements of air, light, and water. They depict the sea as pure, elemental form: waves, tides, swells, foam, calm expanses, and the junction of sea and sky at the horizon line, and land and sea at the water's edge. Through these components, the artists represented evoke sea change as both the unseen transformation of the sea itself and the equally submerged personal, spiritual change that comes from the careful contemplation of one of nature's most powerful and poetic resources.

The eighteen different artistic visions at play here present a wide range of intentions, representing divergent modes of prevailing practice. But while the cultural and aesthetic concerns of the artists are varied, their images are strongly aligned. Together they reconfigure a classical model, the seductive and headily beautiful genre of the seascape, to fit the concerns of the late twentieth century. They photograph oceans and seas from the Asian Pacific to the California coast, from the Caribbean to the North Sea, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Antarctic's Southern Ocean. Some photograph shipboard, others are waist deep or surfing in the waves, and many more are safely located on land, pointing their cameras out towards the watery vistas that captivate them. They utilize all manner of cameras from plastic disposables to large format view cameras, producing prints that range dramatically in size and technique, from platinum to digital output, from scotch-taped mural print to 12 x 15 inch canvases.

The pure seascape, in Western painting or photography, is linked to the eighteenth-century notion of the Sublime. This category conjures the awesome, unmediated power and beauty of creation, all that is larger than human reason: the inexplicable source. The Romantic seascape tradition of the early nineteenth century was born of this reference. Alternative standards developed in Asian art, as exemplified by Hokusai's famous vision of "The Hollow of the Deep Wave off Kanagawa." Photography's nineteenth-century master of the seascape was the Frenchman Gustave Le Gray, followed by California Pictorialists into the early twentieth century. Several Modernist painters and photographers followed, but art of this century has not brought forth a critical mass of interest in the seascape until recently.

As contemporary society befouls and exhausts the world's seas with reckless disregard, the former idea of the sea as limitless, with depths and riches that exceed the imagination, is now in question. Similarly, other environmental abuses have led to the reality of global warming, a prospect which could enlarge the volume of the sea to overflowing. Many of the exhibition artists recognize the shifting ground on which the sea now rides. They experience the allure of the ocean's ancient energy as well as its vulnerability to man's intervention.

Whether revealing calm or tumult, the Sea Change artists come to their subject with a fascination and insight that renew our awareness of the overwhelming proportions of the sea and our debt to it as the source of all life. As humans rewrite the planet's ecology at breakneck speed, the sea as a subject for visual art makes a kind of sense, unseen since the age of discovery and the time of the great ships. Still the site of the dreamer, the sea's visage continues to stir us to wonder at its grandeur and thrill to its inexorable force a truly enigmatic and essential subject for an ambivalent age.

Trudy Wilner Stack, Curator

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