For his first solo exhibition in the United States, French photographer Nicolas Dhervillers introduces Kansas City to monumental landscapes, empty at first, but with a lot to unpack. Figures find themselves on the bridge between modern times and the second industrial revolution. Big, dramatic photographs contain cinematic magic imbued in the dark light of the landscapes. These require slow—preferably solo—viewing, and are best experienced at their full intended scale. Inspired by hard-hitting landscape painters, Dhervillers channels the emptiness of Gustave Courbet, the depth of Claude Lorrain, and the menacing surrealism of Andrew Wyeth. The eye is naturally fixed on the human subjects, but the real subject looms dark and heavy in the surrounding environment. That subject is harder to acknowledge, because once we begin to understand it, we encounter an old and upsetting contradiction. As Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” The absurd lurks in the art of Dhervillers.
The human inability to contain the world seeps out of the images and into the viewer. It is an intuition that translates from the art into every rational being, into everyone who has ever sought to understand the elusive, chaotic heart of the natural world. In the photo series “Detachment”, Dhervillers explores the figure as he faces vast and unyielding entropy, even when it coexists with modern developments. There is fog, dense greenery in the recesses of a wooded area, empty stretches on a gray road, and a single figure caught in an uncertain moment. It often appears to be the edge of winter.
Many of the images clearly embrace contemporary visual hooks of a fictionalized cinematic style—a cabin goes up in flames as a 70’s era Citroën coupe cruises away down the winding valley road. These hooks sometimes feel too clever, but can be forgiven if only because it does not diminish the pleasure of taking it in. Period specific clothes and modern technology make some of the photographs feel exempt from time—part today and part yesterday. The two men on the side of a shattered mountain certainly don’t belong in the same frame as a yellow backhoe, but it works, because this is theater. There are narrative threads to follow in every image, and sometimes the technical digital magic can feel heavy handed, causing the suspension of disbelief to crack, just a little. In this medium, and with such an emphasis on perfectly executed stage setting, any infinitesimal flaw in the digital process won’t go unnoticed by a searching eye.
Nature, the world and all its familiarity, can leave us to our terrible solitude without warning. There is another passage from The Myth of Sisyphus that feels an appropriate philosophical descriptor for the work in the Dhervillers exhibition. It is this: “The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us. Just as there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago, perhaps we shall come even to desire what suddenly leaves us so alone. But the time has not yet come. Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.” Indeed it is. For Nicolas Dhervillers to take on the conceptual weight of these philosophies while achieving near perfection in his craft is definitely one of the quintessential struggles of humanity. Contradiction be damned. There is honor in trying, and admiration for those who try it through art.
At Sherry-Leedy Contemporary Art and Cerbera Gallery in the Crossroads
Until October 21st