JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 black and white photographic works, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the East and West gallery spaces and the connecting hallway area. All of the works are made from gelatin silver paper negatives, displayed as single frame images or as sets of 2, 3, 4, 11, 12, 21, and 25 panels. The individual panel sizes range from 10×4 to 24×20 and 40×12, and all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Chris McCaw’s newest gallery show sits at that fulcrum in an artist’s career when an emerging aesthetic matures into something more nuanced and subtle. At this point, McCaw’s sunburned arcs have become something of a signature style, his initial experiments with slashing burns, black sun spots, and sinuous curves leading to a durably original body of work, mixing old school photographic techniques with hand built technical excellence. As he has refined his approach over the years, traveling to more and more remote locations that offer the best in solar viewing and optimizing his cameras for different visual outcomes, his compositions have grown increasingly complex, both in scale and conception.
His recent extensions to his ongoing Sunburn series find him investigating the boundaries and limitations of a single gestural line. In his biggest wall-covering works to date, McCaw has documented 36-hour “double midnights” in the Arctic Circle, where the sun never actually sets and the curve of its rise and fall creates gently repeating undulations (across multiple sequential plates) that would make a precise geometer smile. And his smaller, single frame works from the Mojave Desert test the sweep of land-to-sky slashes and intervals of dots, in some cases, letting the burn extend from just singing the paper to outright flames that lick down the compositions in residual brown slicks (the flames of course actually rise up, but are flipped by the orientation of the camera).
The works in McCaw’s Heliograph series introduce a second line into the sky (turning the sun into a drawing instrument), the multiple exposures on a single paper challenging his ability to manage the exacting details of his craft. In several works, day long exposures are offset, creating bent arcs that interlock like wings. In others, the slashes of sunrises and sunsets are used more expressively, generating perfectly balanced Xs or alternating lines that echo the fragile delicacy of hanging wire mobiles. And in one specific work, he has managed the starts and stops so meticulously that the resulting lines create squared-off right angles in the sky (like a transparent rectangle when seen as a diptych). Together, these images feel less like open-ended experiments where the results are influenced by the forces of chance, and more like the carefully controlled management of natural phenomena, where the scientific specifics of the external world are channeled into exacting pre-visualized compositions.
There are only two examples on view from McCaw’s new Polyoptic series, but they offer some tantalizing new directions for the artist to explore. Instead of employing one large lens in his specialized camera mechanism, for these photographs, McCaw has created an array of 63 smaller lenses on a single platform, each one with its own tunable aperture; the structure leads to end images that have a grid of circular exposures on one single sheet, in a form not unlike an egg tray. In one work, McCaw has carefully set the apertures for each lens in gradations, letting in the most light in the center and the least at the edges of the grid – the effect is something like a diffusing fog, the solarization creeping outward in increments. The other work from the series creates striped effects from the rows of lenses, using alternating exposures to create the rhythm. These initial images feel a bit like trial balloons, the optimum parameters and conceptual constructs for this innovative new array having not yet been entirely discovered.
With all the pyrotechnics going on in the skies of McCaw’s photographs, it’s easy to lose sight of the nuanced landscapes that frame the action. Many of his seascapes glow with a glorious slow cooked intensity, burnished to a soft sheen like worn bronze. His ice and mountainscapes offer craggier topographies, alternating between dark silhouettes and contoured vistas and jagged peaks with more depth of detail.
And given the long exposures required for McCaw’s images, weather often intervenes in unexpected ways, from the fuzzing interruptions of pesky clouds to the rain and hail storm that took place during one of the double midnight works, the water running down through the camera in streaks and torrents. These details are physical reminders of the things that can’t be controlled in this meticulous artistic process, unruly nature willing to play along for only so long before reasserting her ultimate authority.
This show is strong evidence of McCaw increasing the subtle complexity of his works, and that intensity gives these new pictures a richer and more rounded presence. The tactile violence of the central burn gesture is still as vital and urgent as it was in his very first accidents and experiments, but is now being surrounded by an artistic context that feels fuller and more mature. McCaw’s alchemy will always be an uneasy mixture of chance and precision. What’s freshly exciting is that he has been able to push beyond that first essential flash and continue to find thoughtful avenues for refinement and development that aren’t just obvious reboots and brand extensions. The overexposed fire may have been the starting point, but McCaw has smartly leveraged than unexpected insight into a mode of photographic seeing with a much broader aesthetic range.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $15000 and $175000 based on size. McCaw’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.