I met with Christopher Rodriguez on an uncharacteristically cool summer morning in his studio, perched above a characteristically industrial street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. A one-time architecture student, Rodriguez received his MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in 2008. Much of his photographic work from that period is architectonic, both in form and process. In his early images, Rodriguez constructed urban and rural spaces by digitally compositing elements from photographs of the built and the natural environment. Like many lens-based artists of his generation, Rodriguez found building images digitally to be an effective method for directly addressing how photographs fabricate our perceptions of the world around us. Rodriguez has since focused his efforts on a collection of photographs that he took — rather than made — over a five-year period spent travelling largely in the American West. In Between Artifice and the Sublime, Rodriguez has both honed his highly formal aesthetic and situated himself in the tradition of environmental and landscape photography.
The artifice in the title of this series comes not only from a physical mark on the landscape, as in Robert Adams’s work, but also from a disquiet that arises from the interactions between his human subjects and their surroundings. Grappling as he is with the classic representational language of the Western landscape, Rodriguez is also concerned with the history of how the Ideal is framed in these well-documented frontier lands. Before the Bechers, the first Dusseldorf school of artists to gain renown across the pond included Albert Bierstadt, whose dramatically lit canvases imbued the West with the Romantic Sublime. Rodriguez’s work addresses the confluence of our expectations regarding this notion of the American landscape with the often ill-fitting reality. This tension between the ideal and the actual is heightened by his uncluttered compositions and a cool, uncanny aura. His most plainly handsome photographs speak readily to this, as in his image of a picturesque woodland vista illuminated by pink skies, the result of a nearby forest fire. In another image, the white façade of a building is interrupted and formally complicated by metal tendrils of hurricane-damaged siding.
Thirty-three of the photographs in Between Artifice and the Sublime are presented in Sublime Cultivation, a self-published photo book in an edition of 100. Photography’s shift to a primarily online medium has imparted new power to print. While the primacy of the image gallery over the individual picture is a hallmark of the Internet’s impact on contemporary photography, so, too, is its tendency to jumble and re-contextualize. What artists have gained in exposure, they have lost in control as well as context. Sublime Cultivation is an affirmation of the value of sequencing. Rodriguez spent a year constructing its loose narrative of images, which are cohered by their relationship to one another as much as they are by a sophisticated formalism and sense of uneasy beauty.