In an age when painting's vitality is continually affronted by new media, Portlander Adam Sorensen's decision to only paint landscapes might seem like a woefully conventional endeavor. But his work remains decidedly modern: Though steeped in Romantic painting, his canvases always point to the present through coded cultural signifiers.
Like The Glows, his solo show at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in 2007, False Fjords at PDX Contemporary Art presents a series of desolate, imagined vistas. Where that older work drew inspiration from Japanese printmaking, the new paintings are significantly darker and more dramatic. Here, Sorensen presents an elemental world of craggy mountains, snaking rivers, and spewing waterfalls. And while such rugged subjects position the work in the Romantic tradition of 19th-century German painter Caspar David Friedrich, Sorensen's buzzingly vibrant palette injects the work with a contemporary current. In "Bonanza," iridescent boulders, shimmering in Day-Glo greens, pinks, and purples, bubble up through the earth's crust. The skull-like rock formation in "Frankenstein," on the other hand, conjures Castle Grayskull more than Mont Blanc. By incorporating such electric hues, these panoramas are encoded with references to the whiz-bang colors of consumer culture, from candy wrappers and cartoons to videogames and science fiction.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Sorensen's recent output is how his updated takes on Romantic painting revise the notion of the sublime. Where nature was once the exemplar of the sublime—its perceived limitlessness stirring a mixture of awe and terror in the mind of the beholder—the reality of a shrinking wilderness complicates that sense of fearful reverence. Sorensen's landscapes, glaringly void of humanity's footprint, propose a kind of inverted sublimity, in which the sheer finitude or, worse yet, impossibility of unspoiled nature triggers a horrifying awareness of mankind's appetite to tame the world. In fact, there's a way in which Sorensen's supercharged palette suggests a fundamental inability to see nature in an uncompromised form. It's almost as if he has draped the exaggerated coloration of neon signage and billboards over the comparatively drab earthen tones of an actual mountain vista. Sorensen's work may rely on classical tropes, but it filters them through modern phenomenon, dredging a new kind of sublimity from the abyss of consumer culture.