The New York Hall of Sciences in Queens presents Sandra Gottlieb's powerful 2013 photographic series October Waves, curated by Marcia Rudy. Twenty-five large scale photographs (30 x 40”) and five smaller scale close-up shots feature images of pristine waves with patterns of foam and strongly moving undercurrents in an homage to the ocean’s majesty and its ever changing inexorable might. Gottlieb documents the especially devastating 2013-hurricane season with shots taken at sunset from the same location, each day in October, with the sun over her right shoulder. Often she enters the ocean in high boots to catch a wave at its peak, before it crashes to her feet; she describes the experience as “dancing” with the rhythms of the currents, where her past career as a dancer enabled her to segue with the ebb and flow of the tides. The show offers a brilliant view of pure nature, undiluted by subtexts, at its most sensory and direct.
These dynamic images (shot with a 300 mm fixed lens) highlight Gottlieb’s intense connection with the ocean at Rockaway Beach, Queens, the subject of six of her series to date. It is rare for an American city dweller to appreciate the sea in an intense intimate fashion, but Gottlieb, through her focus on the waves to the exclusion of peripheral subject matter, records her emotionally charged response sans the aid of a telephoto lens in archival digital C-prints on Fugi Paper that is "face mounted" onto non-glare plexiglas. The show also includes five 20 x 24" intimate close-up shots with an even more focused vision of the churning, roiling sea. Although her work recalls the Maine seascapes of Winslow Homer, she eschews the new applications that allow photography to mimic painting; Gottlieb skillfully uses the camera for its original purpose, to capture and freeze in time a moment of rapidly changing reality that the naked eye could never perceive.
Gottlieb is unusual. As a long-time Rockaway Beach resident she is finely attuned to her immediate environment. By entering the ocean to seize her shots, she becomes one with the sea, a living part of the ongoing march of waves that sequentially crash in an unending metaphor for the unstoppable passage of time. Her photographs inspire viewers to conjure childhood beach vacations, when the freedom of innocence intensified the joy of immediate discovery.
Asian artists, inspired by their history and culture, also make an intuitive connection with nature; regrettably, there seem to be few contemporary Western art photographers that find an eloquent link with natural phenomena. In Chinese myths, the sea is associated with immortality; it is employed in religious rituals for purification. In alchemy, the sea can be seen as "mercurial," relating to the subconscious province of feminine vitality and to transformation. As one of the four elements, water is linked to renewal and fertility. In Celtic lore it is considered a mysterious kingdom in itself. Scientists assert that all of life stems from the sea.
Each striking picture is exciting and alive, interspersed with tiny splashes of foam that hover over and through immense green waves, seen at their ultimate breaking point. The water at Rockaway Beach is exceptionally green, even to the point of looking at times dense and mossy. The clarity of the color is distinctive, especially when compared with the appearance of the water, tinted brown by algae, to be found at The New England National Seashore. Some exhibitions today focus on the litter, the detritus that increasingly contaminates the world's waterways; this show instills a refreshing sense of vigor and elation in viewers. It spurs the realization that we are not in charge of nature; no matter how much we neglect it, abuse it, exploit it and mistreat it, the ocean will never be entirely tamed or fully diminished by the efforts of misguided mankind.
With no ecological or political agenda, the show stresses appreciation for the subtle alterations of light, as seen in the diverse, individual waves that invite nostalgia for ocean experiences, in the context of time passing. Gottlieb apprehends the variety within constancy that provides rich variation to her personal vision expressed in a minimal vocabulary of form, pattern, texture and light, giving these elements full sway in each un-cropped composition. Her camera captures the essence of each wave, providing a cosmic visual experience of the ocean’s majesty at its most awe-inspiring. - Mary Hrbacek
Mary Hrbacek has been writing reviews of NY art exhibitions since 1999; she has covered shows in almost every museum in town.