Presenting vitas of sweeping landscapes paired with serene color gradients, Mark Dorf’s photographs of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado ferry nature into fantasy. Emergence, his current show at Postmasters gallery, features 12 large-scale prints Dorf has digitally altered into glowing, multiplanar images composed of overlaid graphics such as color blocks and glitches, creating scenes far removed from their original environments. The results, like framed dreams, are undeniably beautiful, but what appears at first to be an arbitrary mixing of the digital and physical actually stems from highly informed manipulation that meditates on our innate drive to study and make sense of our world.
Dorf shot the images during an artist residency at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Colorado, where he observed and worked alongside ecologists and also adopted a practice grounded in research. He compares his photographs to data that he closely examines, dissects, and analyzes with editing programs, using the information his lens has collected from his surroundings to instruct his digital revisions. A glitched square superimposed on “Emergent #10,” which offers a glimpse of a copse mostly engulfed by a gauzy, linear blue gradient, is actually a strict rearrangement of the underlying image’s original pixels according to hue, saturation, and brightness. The turquoise and seafoam circles that speckle the landscape in “Emergent #18,” reminiscent of Baldessari’s masking dots, take their color from specific pixels in the original photograph; the same shades form a gradient beneath the image, framing it and heightening its sense of displacement from reality. Dorf is presenting concrete data as much as visual poetry: his postcard-perfect pictures are specimens that reveal their own anatomy. These are redescriptions, rather than re-creations, of the landscape that suggest our highly formulaic way of gathering information about and understanding our reality.
The overt and sleek artificiality that makes Emergence so alluring, however, reminds us that even the most systematic and diligent processes used to mine our surroundings are but representations of experience. Works like “Emergent #7” and “Emergent #14” replicate slices of the wilderness Dorf captured, featuring multiple frames of a source image layered evenly over each other to illustrate a literal breaking down of our world into sets of information. Here, extractions of real life are translated into precise, calculated planes that gracefully drift in space, as if in virtual reality, to form Dorf’s most sublime works on view. They are abstractions informed by a specific, calculated process but still exist as reconstructions, wholly transformed.
The two largest works on view, “Reassemblage #1” and “Reassemblage #3,” most clearly demonstrate the various ways science can read our surroundings. Each features massive mountain peaks, perfectly centered to dominate their individual frames; captured in sharp focus, they are, like the rest of the images in Emergence, hyperreal. But these mountains are actually mirages, composed of photographs of a single valley that Dorf seamlessly stitched together. Rainbow-colored bands bordering the tops and bottoms of both images clearly frame them as fantastical — the manipulative potential of photographs is evident, but Dorf is highlighting the open presentation and interpretation of what one expects should yield a purely objective documentation. The valley is unmanipulated, just rearranged into a new composition and new translation of the same subject.
Still, we may readily digest these as actual mountains, and it is all too easy to be seduced by the grandiosity that suffuses Emergence, an exhibition which ultimately illustrates the extent to which these collections of data do structure our experience of our surroundings. As profound as the results of any studies are, what is just as important is understanding the constructs of processes that lead to these quantifications of our world — how exactly we investigate phenomena, acquire knowledge, and assign meaning.
Emergence continues at Postmasters (54 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through October 17.