Echoes of the Sublime is full of natural wonders

Emily Amy Gallery show marvels at the world around us

In our day-to-day, and increasingly hand-to-mouth existence, it’s often hard to make contact with the irrational, the rarefied and wonderfully beyond-limits. Life can seem incredibly finite and ordered, confined by the gated community of our imaginations.

Echoes of the Sublime at Emily Amy Gallery is curated by Atlanta photographer Stephanie Dowda. The exhibition attempts to evoke the spirit of the sublime, a subject that’s captured artists’ and philosophers’ imaginations for centuries. It is most often experienced when we contemplate the vast enormity of nature or a world beyond our control but marvelous in its scope.

Through a group of 10 artists, Dowda examines various photographic approaches to the sublime. But a pared down group could have elevated an already great show of abstract, documentary and conceptual photography. Several of the artists have produced the kind of work you long to see more of in Atlanta, sophisticated and anxious to communicate something meaningful.

Allyson Ross’s “Queen of the Mist” hits that sweet spot of profundity and wit. The piece combines purposefully cheesy crafty elements and formal finesse to support the artist’s commentary on the human desire to be transported by nature. Ross has taken a historic black-and-white photograph of Niagara Falls and “animated” it within its light box casing to give the effect of movement. At a distance from the falls she has placed a viewfinder like you’d find at Yosemite or the Grand Canyon that for a quarter or two offers a magnified gander at natural splendor. The piece is a clever exegesis on the rapacious desire of every tourist to make contact with the sublime while remaining distanced from it.

Ryan Hendon also employs found photographs in his exquisite historical excavation “Mid-Century Landscapes” that delivers the sublime in an unexpected, take-your-breath-away view. Hendon displays WWII-era photographs of the French and German countryside shot from the belly of a bomber. The landscapes viewed from above are jaw-droppingly surreal for such procedural photography. Resembling the elegant mosaic tapestry of Klimt’s “The Kiss,” these landscapes broken into grids of land and city are deeply troubling because they coexist with the destructive potential of the bomber lurking overhead. You imagine the perspectives of the men flying above, with their power to lay waste to such beauty.

Landscapes are a special subset in Echoes of the Sublime because nature has so often been seen by philosophers as the place where grandeur and tragedy coalesce to create the sublime. Megan Gorham and Jeff Rich juxtapose vast natural majesty with interloping humanity. Their work recalls Richard Misrach’s magnificent and chilling portraits of puny humans on vast shorelines in the On the Beach series and his environmental critiques of landscapes ruined by industry. Rich’s haunting color photographs of smoke-belching paper mills or Gatlinburg, Tenn., chair lifts dangling tourists just out of reach of the lush forest depict a natural world whose raw beauty has been compromised by human intervention. But somehow that interplay yields something tender and tragic, the beauty mixed with despair that 18th-century philosophers found in contemplation of nature. The work suggests that we humans can’t help shooting ourselves in the foot with our polluting, tacky, bumbling ways, forever dropping a trail of trash and sullying the perfect view we crave. We are compelled to tragically defile the nature we admire.