Adam Sorensen Draws on Traditional Influences for Otherworldly Landscapes

SF Weekly

May 4, 2015

Adam Sorensen.  Repose  (detail), 2015; oil on linen, 40 x 44 inches.

Adam Sorensen. Repose (detail), 2015; oil on linen, 40 x 44 inches.

Adam Sorensen is a Portland-based artist who draws heavily on traditional landscape art, from romanticism to ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints), to create otherworldly scenes that depart significantly from his predecessors. His show, In Situ at CULT Gallery, demonstrates Sorensen’s meticulous craftsmanship with large, spectacular, and unreal paintings.

Unlike traditional landscape art, any fauna in these works is abstracted beyond recognition, and the strange settings suggest an extraterrestrial locale or some kaleidoscopic and primordial time. Radiant colonies of ribbed and phallic tentacles spring forth from placid bodies of water. Something between kelp and limestone tufa towers, these entities might be undiscovered life forms or geologic structures.

The works call to mind the evenly rendered paintings of early-twentieth-century Canadian artist Lawren Harris. Often depicting Arctic Nunavut or barren peaks of the Rockies, Harris’ high contrast landscapes are almost alien when compared to paintings of quaint thickets, idyllic lake shores, or the Yosemite Valley. The Group of Seven, which Harris helped found, wedded the modernist experimentation of the 1920s with the importance of nature in Canadian national identity. Working in the Pacific Northwest, Sorensen carries forward this chromatic and experimental approach to landscape painting.

Sorensen also plays with the monumental landscapes of nineteenth-century American painters like Albert Bierstadt. In Bierstadt’s work, dreamlike peaks often loom large from belittling perspectives in mountain valleys. In Sorensen’s "Plant Life" (2015), a canyon of bulbous blue and purple cliffs draws the viewer’s eyes to a slowly moving stream. Imposing clouds hang overhead where the parting cliffs reveal the sky. Details emerge when viewed up close, such as mist and clouds hanging on rocky patches in the depth of the painting. These elements expose the underlying romanticism in the painting, not to be obscured by the tight control of color and imperceptible brushstrokes.

The mountains are comparable to the rounded and layered ranges in many traditional Chinese landscape paintings. They resemble nothing in nature but are nonetheless impressionistic and familiar. Numerous ridges, with their sculptural quality, give depth to the paintings, disclosing Sorensen’s academic training as a sculptor. The forms look like they’re molded by hand, resulting in the organic and alien appearance.

Sorensen acknowledges the irony and sarcasm that permeated his first iridescent landscapes, but after nearly a decade of developing this practice, he says the irony is all gone. His sincerity is palpable, and his use of many influences avoids the pitfalls of pastiche. Sorensen has built a style that is recognizably his own and is defined by technical skill and impressive and fanciful environments.