Christopher Colville: A World on Fire @Rick Wester

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 photographic works, variously framed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. The show includes the following works:

  • 4 gunpowder generated gelatin silver prints on matte surface paper, 2016, 2016-2021, roughly 25×32 inches each
  • 1 gunpowder generated gelatin silver print on matte surface paper, 2016-2021, 12×9 inches
  • 2 gunpowder generated gelatin silver prints on matte surface paper, 2016, 2016-2021, roughly 10×8  inches each
  • 4 gunpowder generated gelatin silver prints, 2016-2021, 24×20 inches each
  • 1 gunpowder generated gelatin silver print collage (12 parts), 2016-2021, 22×21 inches
  • 1 gunpowder generated gelatin silver print collage (11 parts), 2018, 44×92 inches
  • 1 gunpowder generated gelatin silver print collage (6 parts), 2016-2021, 22×21 inches
  • 1 gunpowder generated gelatin silver print collage (5 parts), 2021, roughly 22×51 inches
  • 1 gunpowder generated gelatin silver print collage (2 parts), 2016-2021, 20×16 inches
  • 1 gunpowder generated gelatin silver print collage (2 parts), 2016-2021, roughly 17×8 inches
  • 1 set of 50 loose gelatin silver prints in a walnut presentation box, 2016-2021

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The “what if” experimentation impulse runs deep in the history of photography. The early history of the medium can be read like a series of incremental scientific discoveries, with different combinations of light sensitive chemicals applied to different papers and exposed to different kinds of light sources, all in the effort to optimize the potential visual outcomes. From there, improvements in these processes have continued to disrupt and re-invent photographic image making, with each new innovation across the decades opening doors to new aesthetic possibilities. And while we now find ourselves in photographic world dominated by digital and computational technologies, the innate photographic instinct to tinker and explore never ceases.

Christopher Colville’s photographic experiments over the past half decade bring together two relatively unlikely components: a discarded band saw blade and piles of black gunpowder. Like many photographers who have played with the properties of light in the darkroom, letting chance introduce an element of uncontrolled serendipity into the process, Colville has found ways to control the explosion of gunpowder so that it can be used as a light source for making photographs. And the circular band saw blade, with its sharp serrated edge, has become both his ostensible subject and his primary compositional tool.

Simply putting a pile of gunpowder on top of a piece of paper and lighting it will, of course, cause both light and heat in the form of a bright explosive fire, which will naturally burn the paper; artists like Cai Guo-Qiang have used this approach to make gunpowder “drawings”. Colville has instead adapted this approach to his photographic environment, by ingeniously placing a perforated metal plate between the gunpowder and the paper. The plate and its holes do three important things: they allow air to circulate (to encourage the ignition of the gunpowder), they protect the paper from the fire (although some heat is transferred), and they allow light to escape to illuminate the paper underneath. Starting in 2016, Colville began making direct images with the band saw blade as his subject, with a circular plate placed in the center of the blade; when the gunpowder was lit, the flash exposed the underlying photographic paper, with the blade (and the protective setup) creating shadows and unexpected modifications to the flow of light.

At their most straightforward, Colville’s gunpowder experiments create circular forms (a little like studded bicycle tires or solar eclipses) that hover in a swirl of empty shifting blackness. The echo of the band saw blade shows as near white, while the rest of the picture captures the visual consequences of the explosion, as seen in both horizontal and vertical formats. Given that Colville is using gelatin silver paper as his substrate, we might expect his images to range across a tonal scale of white, grey, and black, but the heat from the gunpowder alters the chemistry on the surface of the paper, bringing seared hints of yellows, oranges, and browns into his color palette.

As photographic abstractions, Colville’s images are rich and luxurious, his elemental circles surrounded by waves, fogs, and clouds of subtle color that refuse to coalesce. Some blast outwards in all directions; others seem to fall and weep; and still others feel muffled, like a shout into the void. And for those that like symbolism, Colville offers the myth of the ouroboros, the serpent who devours its own tail, its endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth taking place in a primordial soup of dark cosmic winds.

Working with gunpowder must have its share of misfires, accidents, and inexplicable unbalanced results that don’t neatly adhere to the perfect circle motif, and Colville has smartly reused some of these fragments in a subseries of works titled “Remnants”. These prints have been cropped down to arcs, curves, and partial circles, which Colville has presented as stand alone works or collaged together into pairings and grids. The same moody atmosphere surrounds these arcs, but the formal associations we might make are now different. In particular, the grids aggregate multiple arcs into single compositions, the curves seeming to interlock and overlap like knots and rosettes, or perhaps like the snake tangled in its own body.

Colville then takes this idea of building with fragments to its logical extreme in two large multi-image collages. In “Serpent #1”, the various arcs are connected end to end, creating a back and forth swishing, again like the movement of a snake. And in “The One That Remains (Serpent #4)”, the arcs are built up into three side by side circles, the tones darkened to elusive nuances of black by surface rubbed charcoal like apocalyptic black suns. Having become comfortable with his unorthodox gunpowder process, it’s clear that Colville is now searching for ways to extend the motifs, the layering of the collages opening a door to using the forms as a mark making tool, and creating opportunities for visual connection, repetition, and gestural aggregation.

As seen in these works, Colville’s ideas fit somewhere between the process-centric abstract experimentalism of Marco Breuer and the elemental light rhythms of Chris McCaw and his burned solarscapes. Colville has developed a unique technical approach to image making with his gunpowder process, and having now perfected it to some extent, he seems interested in pushing his results back toward something vaguely representational or at least allusive. I expect his next steps will be further rounds of iterative tinkering and experimentation, seeing where else this twisting snake might lead.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $1500 and $34000 each, generally based on size and complexity, with the boxed set at $45000. Colville’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Aperture (here). Hardcover, 9.4 x 11 inches, 312 pages, with 200 photographs. Includes illustrated essays by Svetlana Alpers, Addison Bross, and Joshua ... Read on.

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