Arts Desk

Reviewed: “Picturing the Sublime” at the Phillips Collection

For an exhibit that’s all about showcasing dramatic, sprawling expanses, the collection of photographs in “Picturing the Sublime” is rather cozy—just 11 images from the holdings of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg.

The selections are somewhat uneven—Washington has seen better iceberg images in recent years than the offering from Lynn Davis, and the pairings from Edward Burtynsky, Richard Misrach, and Carleton Watkins could easily have been trimmed to one image each—but the exhibit does include some genuine gems.

Burtynsky’s 2010 photograph of the BP oil spill showcases his trademark loveliness-amidst-the-despoliation vibe, in this case a huge (yet in this perspective, toy-like) vessel floating on a gulf of ominous-looking water drizzled with a wispy, gracefully chiaroscuroed coating of what looks like chalk dust. The gentle undulations and ethereal atmospherics of Misrach’s eccentric pools of water in the Nevada desert (below) look just as mesmerizing as they did when the Corcoran exhibited them more than a decade ago.

But the show-stealer is none other than the ultra-familiar Ansel Adams (above), in the form of the not-so-familiar “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine.” The image is a layer cake of contrasting moods and shades—a foreboding sky, bright jutting mountains, an impenetrably dark-shadowed hill, a row of delicate, evenly spaced trees, and, to top it off, a horse peacefully grazing at the foot of this glorious concoction.

Also worth a look: a selection of photographs in an adjoining room that aren’t part of the exhibit proper. The works on view include images by John Divola, John Pfahl, and William Christenberry, plus a striking, bright-red dune captured by April Gornik and a surrealistic diorama photographed by Lori Nix, an image perhaps better known as the cover art for the 2011 Fountains of Wayne album, Sky Full of Holes.

Through Jan. 13 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.

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