Ocean | Desert book

Monograph published by Radius Books

Photography by Renate Aller

Essay by Janet Dees

Published by Radius Books

Links to order book:
Radius Books
DAP Artbook

Publication date: August 2014

  • Photographs by Renate Aller. Text by Janet Dees
  • Hardbound, 16.75 x 11.25 in, 136 pages, 103 color images
  • ISBN: 978-1-934435-81-6
  • Trade Edition$75.-

About The Book

This new project by German-born photographer Renate Aller, titled Ocean and Desert, is an extension of the ongoing series and sold-out book oceanscapes (Radius Books, 2010). Aller has continued to make images of the ocean from a single vantage point—for which she is internationally known—but for the last several years, she has also photographed sand dunes in New Mexico and Colorado.

She has now paired the resulting images in a fascinating new series that continues her investigation into the relationship between Romanticism, memory, and landscape in the context of our current socio-political awareness. There is both a visual and visceral relationship between the two bodies of work, as though the minerals of the sand dunes carry the memory of the ocean waters that were there millions of years before. The desert images also capture visitors to the dunes, who engage in beach activities far away from any large body of water. And while these parallel realities are from completely different locations, the simultaneous, multiple activities on the sloping sand hills appears as if layers of different people and activities were choreographed next to rolling waves of the sea.

Aller’s first combination of these images was in book form, for a mammoth hand-made book that was 36 inches wide. The overwhelming success of that object has inspired the new trade copy edition, which is as large a binding that can be mechanically bound, and includes an expanded selection of the work.

About The Artist

Renate Aller lives and works in New York. Ocean | Desert is her third monograph published with Radius Books, following Dicotyledon and the long-term project Oceanscapes – One View – Ten Years. Pieces from that series and other site specific art works are in the collections of corporate institutions, private collectors and museums, including the Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Yale University Art Gallery, the George Eastman House, Rochester, New Britain Museum of American Art, Hamburger Kunsthalle, the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, and the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY.

About The Writer

Janet Dees is curator at SITE Santa Fe. A Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the University of Delaware, she received her BA in Art History and African/African American Studies from Fordham University and her MA in Art History from the University of Delaware. Before pursuing graduate work, Dees worked as a museum educator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York African Burial Ground Project and as assistant director for a contemporary art gallery in New York.

The Illusion of Separateness, by Janet Dees

Renate Aller is not only an artist whose work I admire and find inspiring, she is also a dear friend. Last year, she introduced me to the book The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. This beautiful novel, by another gifted artist and thinker, poetically explores several characters whose lives seem so far apart from one another but, we discover as their stories unfold, are interconnected in very meaningful ways. Van Booy traces the profound impact that small gestures, perhaps long forgotten by one character, have had on the life of another, revealing core connections between seemingly disparate people.

In a similar way, with Ocean|Desert, Aller explores the illusion of separateness between two “landscapes”—the ocean and the desert. The ocean as experienced from Long Island’s southern shore and the sand dunes of New Mexico and Colorado are locations that lie thousands of miles apart, but for Aller are intimately connected. Through the juxtaposition of photographs from each of these locales, Aller invites us to meditate on the relationship between these two distant landscapes. This project is the latest manifestation of Aller’s continued interest in Romanticism, memory, and landscape. As Aller describes, she has “ always [been] fascinated by the phenomenon of the oceans and deserts/sand dunes, an intimate relationship that is based not on proximity but on shared history. They both carry each other’s memory…. Both the ocean and the sand have trace minerals that are all-present and carry an ancient memory, the oldest memory there is.”

For Ocean|Desert, Aller draws from two bodies of photographs. Since 1999 Aller has photographed the view of the Atlantic Ocean from the same vantage point on Long Island’s east end. These painterly photographs capture the effects of changes in weather and light in compositions imbued with complexity. This dedication to repeated and engaged viewing has been compared to Monet’s studies of the cathedral at Rouen. The Romantic view of the landscape evoked by these photographs has earned them comparisons with work of the nineteenth-century German painter Caspar David Friedrich, whom Aller has cited as an influence. More recently, Aller began visiting the White Sands dunes in New Mexico and the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, and created a body of photographs taken over the course of five visits to these sites between 2011 and 2013. Aller’s painterly approach is evident in this body of work as well, as she luxuriates over the complex textures and intricate details of these desert landscapes.

Ocean|Desert builds upon strategies that Aller has employed in other bodies of work. The idea of continued engagement with the same landscape that is at the core of the oceanscapes series, informs the these new photographs. In dicotyledon (2012), a parallel project to oceanscapes, Aller began experimenting with pairing photographs of different types. In this series, portraits of humans and animals situated in the landscape are paired with oceanscapes or rich details of water, land, and flora. The choice of the name dicotyledon for the series has important philosophical implications. Aller states that “the term refers to a plant that has a pair of leaves within the embryo of the same seed.” It is not just about the bringing together of two things, but about two things that share an originary connection. This idea of reuniting two entities that share an origin informs the Ocean|Desert project as well.

As with dicotyledon, the figure enters into the Desert photographs. In dicotyledon the figures are frontal and occupy a large percentage of the picture plane. In contrast, the figures in the Desert series appear with their backs turned to us, or looking off into the distance, and are decidedly figures within the landscape. Their activities in the sand dunes signify a comfortableness in and ownership of the space, while compositionally the figures’ arrangements underscore the vastness of the landscape. This is heightened in the images from White Sands, where the stark-white gypsum-infused sand creates an effect that is ethereal, surreal, and disconcerting all at once. A productive tension is created between the intimate and the sublime.

In a way, Ocean|Desert is visual argument, however poetic, for recuperating the presence of the ocean in the desert and vice versa. Many of the spreads in this book deliberately blur the lines between the desert and ocean and prompt us to question our assumptions about our understanding of these landscapes. Two of Aller’s trips to White Sands took place on Easter Sunday, a time when local New Mexican families inhabit the site as a place of recreation and engage in activities similar to those performed on beaches near the ocean. In some pairings, the dappling of light across the dunes mimics the undulation of the ocean’s waves. In others, we are not sure if we are encountering two photographs from the same locale, or one from the desert and one from ocean.

As with other works of art, the photograph is an invitation to the viewer to focus on something that the artist deems important. Inherent in the photographic process is a thoughtful selection of what is before the camera and a careful framing of the subject. If part of the creation of a single photograph is the process of framing, the arrangement of photographs within this book, both their juxtaposition within spreads, and the consecutive sequencing of these spreads, can be thought of as a reframing. This reframing serves to highlight different aspects of these compositions than what one might notice if they were experienced individually. Through the form of the book, a unique conceptual experience is created, and like the photographs contained within it, this book has its own visual rhythm.

In his 1869 volume Culture and Anarchy, English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, defending the purpose of art, stated that “art is the criticism of life.” Revisiting Arnold’s volume almost 140 years later, philosopher Alain de Botton further explicates this idea by commented that for artists “embedded in their work, there [is] an impulse to correct the viewer’s insight or teach him to perceive beauty,…to reanimate his sensitivities, to nurture his capacity for empathy…. [Artists] act as guides to a truer, more judicious, more intelligent understanding of the world.” De Botton’s analysis came to mind as I was pondering Aller’s new body of work. Ocean|Desert implores us to “perceive beauty” in these landscapes, but it also subtly calls for much more. What that “much more” is will differ from viewer to viewer. For me, the “much more” involves a recuperation of the ocean’s and desert’s shared memory, a reminder to dispel the illusion of separateness in other aspects of life, to reach a “more intelligent understanding of the world.”

Copyright © 2014 Radius books
All artwork © 2014 Renate Aller
The Illusion of Separateness © 2014 Janet Dees

Radius Books is a tax-exempt, 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization founded in 2007, whose mission is to encourage, promote and publish books of artistic and cultural value. Books give an accessible form to rich and complex creative visions. They become the vehicles for beauty, reflection and change. In this spirit, Radius Books donates copies of every title we publish to libraries and schools, with the hope and expectation that these books will reach and inspire new and expanding audiences. Radius Books titles are distributed to the trade by Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.). Limited editions are available at selected galleries and directly through the publisher.

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Janet Dees and Renate Aller