Jordan Sullivan's Death Valley by Stephen Dillon, for Artsy
The psychedelic desert photographs of Jordan Sullivan capture not only the look but also the feeling of the Mojave Desert’s Death Valley. Sullivan makes unusual choices in his compositions, focusing only on color or washing it out, and printing landscapes in vertical formats using horizon lines as dividers for color more than space. His adventurous uses of the medium play to its strengths, exploring light and opening up new dialogues within experimental photography.
Sullivan’s work upends (or dismisses) several traditional notions of photographic norms. The photographer emphasizes a concern for naturalism in his representational works, which often feature landscapes, but he also focuses on the light that fills Death Valley. The latter works resemble color-field abstractions in gradations of pale and candy-like colors, which Sullivan achieves through importing many tactics from painting in order to contort his images into meditative studies of the sublime.
Among his most unconventional moves is Sullivan’s abandonment of compositional strictures. Whereas landscapes are most often depicted in a horizontal format, most of Sullivan’s are vertically oriented. In Landscape 3, Mountain #6, and Mountain #12, the artist shoots mountains deep into the distance, but from a narrowed, tunnel-vision-like perspective. He prints in large formats, up to 60 x 40 inches, so despite their verticality, the towering images envelop the viewer. The aforementioned works employ a limited palette of neutral colors, from blue-gray to warm taupe, and in the former two, the landscapes seem on the verge of dissolving.
Sullivan does sometimes hew to more standard formats, as in Landscape 1and Landscape 2. These pieces offer an expansive perspective of a valley, the horizon line barely visible in the distance. Still, despite these distancing maneuvers, the work seems deeply ingrained in the artist’s worldview, and intends to absorb viewers. “Through photography I hope to get closer to the world, not escape from it,” says Sullivan. “The desert has always been a place that I’ve been drawn to, particularly for its contradictions. Like any wilderness, the desert is a place where you can find peace but also somewhere violent and hostile.”
Much of Sullivan’s recent work has been shot in Death Valley, in Eastern California. His “Death Valley Light” series, filled with hazy swaths of color, captures the desert’s light reflected on clouds. In Death Valley Light 2, a fuzzy peach-color takes up most the field of vision, tempered by a thin slice of pale blue at the top. Works like Death Valley Light 6 go through a more elaborate progression of colors, in this case powdery blue to a subtle pinkish-purple to washed-out orange. In many works, the color is extremely intense reflecting the time of day in which they were taken; in others, such as Death Valley Light 8 and Death Valley Light 10, the hues are more muddled, suggesting dusk.
Sullivan’s psychedelic inversion of convention parallels the mythical aura of the west and the hallucinatory power of deserts. His work disturbs expectations with their unusual beauty, portraying as much the feeling of the nature as its appearance.
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson for PHOTO-EYE
An Island in the Moon by Jordan Sullivan is an ambitious work and one that seems to reach beyond the concept of photography as a series, giving us instead as a set of images to convey a constructed message, in this case a poetic one.
Just as a volume of poetry has a lot of blank space around the poems, so do the images in An Island In the Moon. Some appear full page, but many are smaller, causing the viewer to examine them more closely. Often two or three smaller images share the same page, an invitation for one to consider their relation to one another or their similarities. Like poetry, An Island in the Moon is a craft of contrasts, metaphors and the unexpected.
The range of alternative processes used by Sullivan throughout the book heightens the sense of something poetically turned; a spectrum of sepias and blues double to convey a theme of the lunar. An Island in the Moon, obviously, is no place in the sun and the work as a whole is a melancholic one. It isn’t imbued with madness, as lunacy and poetry might imply, but with the sullenness of the solitary night thinker. It’s the night of a dreamer.
An Island in the Moon also has a precocious volume of images that, at first, can feel too profuse. Repeated viewing of the book lightens this, ultimately giving it the sense of an almanac for phases of the moon, but also desire, the body, life and light. Repeated engagement is also necessary to catch the repetition of the images and note how even those that are the same are different, like metaphors hinging on the same word, but with wholly different meanings in each utterance.
I enjoy this book and its photographer’s dedication to theme and narrative. In Sullivan’s own words, “I was raised in stories first and foremost and that naturally lead to writing so writing is sort of my first creative love and i think everything else has kind of stemmed from that. of course as you delve deeper into any medium you may feel inclined to explore it in other ways and photography allows me to explore storytelling from different angles… the reading of [An Island In the Moon] has much more to do with poetry.”
And towards that poetry he goes on to say, “I do believe in the interconnectedness of things, and I look for juxtapositions that express this — a body and a leaf, a convergence of birds and two faces… I have always thought that art — literature or visual - brings out some sort of poetic mystery or invisibility.”
Among the most significant of these juxtapositions is the body as landscape/the landscape as body. This theme has taken center stage recently with photobooks like Mona Kuhn’s Private and June Yung Lee’s Skin; the idea in these works has been to view the body as something that is naturally occurring, and that to abstract it into knees, lips, hands eyes etc., is to make it a horrific thing — something dismembered. Offering the body as natural landscape, Sullivan’s An Island in the Moon offsets it from something strictly human through correlation with nature. It’s a primordial turn away from the socio-emotional and man-made, restoring the human form to a realm more of awe than of beauty as aesthetics.
Sullivan’s thoughts, as diverse, perhaps, as the images in the book, are a good groundwork forAn Island In the Moon. It is profuse, but visually melodic and extraordinarily poetic throughout. Like a poem, it takes root; its deeper meaning may not arrest you until later, perhaps when it is night and you are alone, your thoughts converging with the softening moonlight and the beginning of dream.
An Essay on the work of Jordan Sullivan by William Corwin
In his roamings across country, artist Jordan Sullivan has collected
things--objects, images, words, places; the location of these entities
seems to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and the words
either inscribed on the images, such as “Paradise is a dead man’s town,”
or found within the photos themselves; “Big Sky Hay and Feed” offer no
direction, only more intensity and depth. In point of fact, the key to the
map is the artist himself, which is the core of Jordan Sullivan’s work--the
linkage of objects and images stitched together by memory.
In the collections of photographs entitled “Cruising Paradise” and
“Roadsongs” he maps the United States through a series of vignettes that
both define the continent in the bluntest possible terms: 2 oceans, deserts,
forests and fields, roadside diners and migrant workers; but he confuses
and confounds the viewer by questioning where “there” is. We have been
“there” but not to where Sullivan has been, but somewhere similar, and
we felt something very much like what he felt. The series “The Way Back
Home,” ends with a wrist tattoo which tells us “Nowhere’s Home.” Found
object sculptures also populate this journey - they are talismans and
totems. “Porcupine Quill Circle” (2011), “Horseshoe Cross” (2011),
and “Skull Cross” (2010), all call out for direction and seem vehicles
for divination, but it’s cloudy as to what or whom is addressed--Gods,
Demons, simple dumb luck?
(Sullivan's exhibition) Natural History is a wartime narrative, a romance between
a nurse and a tank operator and a series of works arising from their shared
memories that juggles double meanings and the fickleness of perception.
In “Untitled” Sullivan places an old photograph his grandmother snapped of Hitler’s
Eagle’s Nest Aerie within a circle of porcupine quills: the object and
the image are two very different things--one a cherished object, but an
image of the abode of the devil himself. “Prayer for the Wounded,” on the
other hand, places the images of POW’s onto the canvas from a vintage
army duffel bag, transforming our visually engaged sympathy into a
tactile and soft medium that acts as a metaphor for the wear and tear
of life. The artist finesses his grandparents and his own narrative like
an accordion - thoughts and questions about morality from two different
times and places collide and then diverge on the walls of the gallery.
“Memory Study I (Reels & Pages)” presents a burned audio reel of all the
artist’s sins, but these sins, unlike those of a soldier or nation, which are
absolved over decades, have been washed away by the symbolic and
violent act of burning the reel. This is an exhibition of an alternative set of
answers, in Sullivan’s own words: “I try to make stuff that doesn’t belong
to a specific time, stuff that will grow up with me, that’ll keep changing.” It
is a self-reflexive self-conscious artistic practice that uses the artist himself
as a seismograph of life’s ups and downs.
William Corwin writes for Frieze, ArtPapers, and The Brooklyn Rail, and
has a radio show on Art International Radio.
Artist Jordan Sullivan creates things from a really good ground--a solid
ground--which allows his work to reach distant places. His art shows a
dedicated honesty to himself and he offers to share that with anyone
else--you are free to enter his world and his memories. It’s very clear to me
that he works very hard at his art, but there isn’t any sense of anxiousness
in it. He works to capture some truth--and truth is the beautiful thing, even
if it’s ugly. With aplomb he captures what’s in his head, the places in his
head that are in the distance, the beautiful distance.
-Mike Starn (Excerpt from catalog of Sullivan's solo-exhibition Natural History)