Image Credit: Tim Portlock, Sundown, 2011, archival pigment print, 54 x 72 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum. Museum purchase.

A Reflection on “Sundown by Tim Portlock
By Fiona Clark, student at the Michener since 2007

This image is a piece of artwork called “Sundown”. It was made in 2011 by Tim Portlock. I saw it as part of the A Time to Break Silence: Pictures of Social Change exhibition at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, where I live. The computer-generated image depicts an eerie, post-apocalyptic Philadelphia. Both the principles and the elements of design are used to great effect.

“Sundown” follows the principles of design to achieve its effect. It isn’t symmetrical, but the image still has a sort of balance to it. On the left is hilly, detailed foreground; on the right is the power of a white-hot sun. This detail vs. intensity balances the image. The proportions seen mirror those in real life, with one exception—the strange figure atop the familiar sight of the Philadelphia City Hall. This figure is larger than the famous William Penn statue, subverting it into something bizarre and creepy. The emphasis is on this figure, the focal point of the image. It is boldly silhouetted by the all-consuming orange glow. Although this orange glow makes up about fifty percent of the artwork, the rest has variety in terms of the distinct, detailed landscape. The repetition comes from the orange, reflecting off the river and hazing the distant buildings, as well as the buildings themselves—numerous, familiar, and abandoned. This lends the image rhythm. One of the best parts of the piece of art is its unity. A well-known, realistic landscape, plus a weird slant on actual reality, are brought together by that strange figure. The principles of design are at play here, ordering the image and the way its different elements are used.

The elements of design are important in “Sundown” as well. Lines are used to separate the precise foreground, from the eerie middle ground, from the nebulous background. This achieves the realistic part of the image’s look. Distinct shape is a large part of what makes this art so striking. For example, the figure has the specific look of an all-too-real human. These shapes are well-defined, but the car and the houses in the foreground look almost two-dimensional. This is in contrast to the figure; mass is used to increase the bizarre atmosphere of the artwork. The texture is very defined. You can see how worn the boards in the windows of the houses are, and how the water has slight ripples reflecting the light. The colors are mainly neutral and dull, but for the bold orange, that turns yellow, that turns white in the sun. This orange hanging over the image brings to mind the unhealthy smog of Asian metropolises like Beijing and New Delhi. The elements of design are clearly in use.

Full disclosure, I absolutely love this piece of art. The telephone poles like crosses, the sickly orange, the unsettling levels of detail—I think it’s wonderful. “Sundown” corrupts the familiar with innovative techniques and a vivid imagination. Fundamentally, it asks the question: What has happened to our world that could make it look like this?

– By Fiona Clark,  student at the Michener since 2007 

Fiona Clark first came to the Michener Art Museum as a student in our popular intergenerational art class, Learning to Look and Listen. The class spurred her interest in art and history, and she has remained an active part  of our Museum community since 2007. 

Special thanks to Fiona Clark and her family, all of whom have been actively engaged with the Michener for more than ten years. Visit our Museum News blog to learn more about Fiona.