JTF (just the facts): A total of 52 color photographs, alternately framed in white/black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. 12 of the works are unique chromogenic prints, made in 2015 and 2016. These prints are irregular in size, generally ranging from roughly 35×18 to 35×48 (two are cut into diptychs). The other 40 works are unique chromogenic prints with mixed media, made in 2016. Each of these is sized 4×5. A monograph of this body of work, entitled Swamp, was recently published by GOST Books (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Some landscapes, especially broad open grasslands and savannas with endless skies, seem to inherently defy being photographed. While an adept photographer can take to the air, or step back and take in a wide vista, or get up close to the nearby landmarks and vegetation, the open spirit of the place often gets lost in the cropping down to a single frame. There is grandeur, and harmony, and intensity in elemental sweeping landscapes, and that timeless mystery often resists being captured on film.
My guess is that when Chloe Sells looked at her original photographs of Botswana, she felt this same sense of missing the real essence of the place. Taken in the flood plains and swamplands of the Okovango delta, her pictures try all of the approaches listed above, stretching to bottle the magic of the land. There are fluffy clouded skies, expansive views that stretch for miles, glorious sunsets, from-the-air images that document the vast topography, and silhouetted views of scraggly dry palms. But on their own, they don’t tingle with the energy of truly understanding the resonances of this unusual place.
So Sells began to experiment, taking small 4×5 color prints and overpainting them. Her results feel warmly improvisational, like immediate unfiltered reactions and additions to the various scenes. She overlays the prints with arrays of tiny dots, angled lines and stripes, repeated polygons, and checkerboard patterns. She tries painterly washes and watery blotches that spill across the images. And she introduces bold colors, creating pops and jolts that electrify the surroundings. In short, she amplifies the landscapes with abstraction, again and again, looking for ways to successfully infuse the photographs with something more.
Sells seems to use these small works as a note taking mechanism, a way to capture ideas which she then reuses in the darkroom. Extrapolating these hand-crafted interventions into darkroom-ready techniques – sandwiched/multiple negatives, colored filters/tints, gestural coloration/chemical treatments, etc. – she works on a much larger scale, cutting the paper into irregular shapes. Many of the works are decorated with impressionistic dappled color, wisps of pink and yellow that waft through the sky like fairy dust or sparkling memories. Others dive into eye-popping saturated tints, rich magentas, acidic yellows, and electric greens that bang around with lively exuberance. And still others play with small textures – wavy grids of mesh, tactile burlap, dotted maps of migration routes, intricate drawn lines – that bring cultural connections, scientific detail, and unexpected associations to the underlying photographs.
While some of Sells’ additions and extension seem to sit on top of the pictures like discrete layers (and ideas), the best of her works are seamlessly integrated and interwoven, crackling with contagious vivacity – it’s as if we can hear the song of the land filling our ears (almost to bursting), her improvisations amplifying the music. Her interventions solve the intractable problem photographing the unphotographable, by introducing kaleidoscopic richness and zest that fills in the gaps the camera can’t see.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The larger color prints range from $3700 to $8000, based on size, while the smaller overpainted prints are $850 each. Since this is Sells’ first solo show in the United States, it is not surprising that her work has not yet reached the secondary markets. As such, gallery retail remains the best/only option for those collectors interested in follow up.