Feb/Mar 2012

Supercell

Albert Mobilio


Click to enlarge

STORMY WEATHER, there’s no sun up in the sky. But there’s plenty else. Nebraskan photographer Kevin Erskine captures epic doings in the skies over the Great Plains, where layers of cool and warm, dry and humid air clash to create tornadoes, lightning, and, if conditions are right, an especially combustible tempest called the supercell—a massive swirling thunderstorm whose powerful updrafts often precede twisters. Erskine’s artistic forebears include renowned skyscape painters J. M. W. Turner and Jacob van Ruisdael, who often devoted more than half of their canvas to the great swath of color and space that hovers above terra firma. Their skies are mythic vaults, venues for warring gods and visionary acts, heavens as dense with emotional texture and complex incident as any of the shipwrecks or pastoral idylls playing out beneath. Erskine’s large-format photographs extend and deepen, via meteorological specificity, this tradition of staging empyrean tumult. A longtime “storm chaser,” he has produced a catalogue of atmospheric sculptures whose monikers—wall cloud, mammatus, inflow band, mothership—evoke, as do the images themselves, both the primal and the futuristic. These roiling mountains bear down low on the flat midwestern turf and, in Erskine’s wide-angle, documentary-style depictions, appear to be nothing less than harbingers of the apocalypse. In the above photo, taken in Levelland, Texas, a churning bank of clouds presses close to the ground, squeezing into a narrow band all light, and, seemingly, all air. Refracted sunlight ignites the mass, suggesting a strange inversion of the cosmos—hell has overtaken heaven and now seeks to crush earth. In other images, mothership formations ride across otherwise spotless skies, their flared, angular contours accentuating already epic bulk—Apollo in his chariot surely is about to burst from their midst. Featured quotes from Macbeth, such as the First Witch’s inquiry “When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” confirm Erskine’s eschatological inclination. Of course, the imminent doom isn’t merely figurative, as the volume’s very last photo makes clear: Spread over two pages are the splintered, gnarled remains of homes and trees where a tornado touched down in Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007. Not stormy weather, but the wild wrath of the spirit in the sky.

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