New York

Caroline Dlugos

Gorney Bravin + Lee

At first glance, Caroline Dlugos’ large color landscapes appear to be neo-objectivist expressions in which the pure pleasure of looking at any huge, well-made color photograph is almost enough. And Dlugos’ pictures are certainly beautiful. They are all taken from an elevated vantage point—with fields of grass or flowers or plowed ground swelling up to fill the lower two-thirds of the frame—and all end in a high, straight line that forms the horizon, above which loom luxurious skies. These expansive views are initially restful, so it is with some consternation that you begin to notice incommensurable details. Focusing on a field of yellow flowers, you gradually become aware of an unnatural symmetry in the forms. Cows grazing atop a grassy hill appear to be randomly scattered, until one notices that three of the cows are identical and equidistant in the line they form. Similary, there seems to be nothing unusual about a rain tree standing in a plowed field, until you look more closely and see that its leaves are a bit too regular, too geometrical, to be real. At this point, the landscapes take on a sinister cast, creating a sort of painful divergence. The prosthetic forms are so well integrated that they lull you into visual complacency before bringing you up short, placing you on the faultline between digitally generated images and photographs. Is that a real cloud or an animation? Is that a real landscape or did you just make it up? Perceptual confidence in the link between the photograph and an actual referent is effectively built up, only to be shaken to its roots—we have entered Dlugos’ strange gardens. And, almost as if each “garden” were one in a line of consecutive genetic-engineering experiments, every picture is given the name of the series, “Aus Fremden Gärten” (From strange/foreign gardens, 1993– ), followed by a serial number printed in red along the bottom.

The effects of Dlugos’ mutations are cumulative. After picking out identical skeletal trees repeated in a field of brown grass, you realize that a stand of trees on the left side that were serving as your baseline of the real are all “constructed.” In another scene, a skeletal tree seen in a previous image is enlarged in the foreground, to the right, while two of the grazing Hereford bulls on the left are missing legs, floating like ghastly frankfurters under a salmon-colored sky.

Dlugos’ skies, which range from pale gray to mauve, are particularly haunting. The more supersaturated and outrageous they are, the more “real” they seem. Precedents for Dlugos’ pictures can be found in sources ranging from the brightly colored images taken by the Voyager space probe, which relied on “mock color-imaging” to exaggerate and stretch the colors across the visible spectrum, heightening contrast, to Antonioni’s films, from Red Desert, 1964, on, in which color becomes a character and reality is recreated as an abstract form.

That representation is falsification, that all landscape pictures are imaginary and artificial, seems somehow newly urgent here. “It is art to show that the world is artificial,” wrote Otto Rössler, “To penetrate this artificial world and wrest its secret from it—that is the new possibility that the electronic media offer.” Dlugos’ magnificently subtle manipulations are welcome interventions in this brave new world.

David Levi Strauss