The Right Kind of Nothing

Clifford Ross’ photographs convey calmness on silver gelatin prints

Clifford Ross has a wonderfully handsome show of photographs of nothing. This may sound like something out of a “Seinfeld” episode, but it’s true and it’s quite provocative.

In the recent past, Ross exhibited a group of photographs called “Hurricane.” These are fairly straightforward pictures of a stretch of beach in East Hampton before or after a big storm. They are highly dramatic and romantic with all the foam and froth of a powerful natural occurrence, and beautifully printed in black and white.

The current show includes small pictures of the same stretch of beach during a calm summer day. Hung in groups, the photographs show successive phases of calm waves breaking, establishing a sense of their rhythm and inevitability. Larger works in the show are inspired by the placid sky in the smaller pictures and are all blank (or at least uninflected), and printed from a single negative in varying tones of gray, from very pale to very dark. They are all the same size (62 by 51 inches) and are hung as one single panel, four diptychs, and five triptychs. These unique silver gelatin works are known as “The Grain Series,” because in the end the subject seems to be the grain of the film emulsion.

This effect, in combination with the impact of the sky in the smaller pictures, sets up a boundless micro-macro thought process. Though reminiscent of the classical avant-garde, this show seems to have more of a connection with a real Zen attitude. The blankness feels far from the French existential model of nothingness (a grim kind of shrug) and closer to the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (an awe-filled wonder and acceptance, unencumbered by opinions, nuance, or minutiae). The work seems detached from the rather stern minimalist ethos of the recent past as well.

The effect is calm and beautiful without narrative or agenda.

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