John Chiara, Pike Slip to Sugar Hill @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the East and West gallery spaces, as well as the smaller transitional gallery in between. The show includes 17 single images and 2 diptychs. Each of the works is a negative chromogenic photograph (or pair), made in 2018. Each print/panel is sized roughly 50×40 inches (the edges are irregularly cut) and is unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It is nearly always the case that it takes time for an artist to get a feel for a new project. A few early successes often provide some positive reinforcement that the path is one worth following, but more durable innovation usually requires a conscious redoubling of efforts, where the initial learnings (and failures) are incorporated into second and third generation works that consolidate the best outcomes and push the ideas much further.

In John Chiara’s last New York gallery show (in 2016, here), he introduced a series of works made right here in the city. And if we look back at the installation shots of that exhibit, it’s easy to see the flashes of excitement that were simmering there. Cast in reversed tonalites and bathed in almost apocalyptic washes of flared yellow, orange, and burnt red, his views of famous architectural landmarks, narrow urban canyons, and ordinary brownstones had sparks of something fresh and new.

In the two years since that show, Chiara has been actively refining his craft. He built a new custom-designed camera, making it wider to accommodate larger paper rolls (making the resulting prints somewhat less tall and narrow) and adding a more precise barrel lens to increase the sharpness of his compositions. He expanded his repertoire of dodges, burns, and filters used while making exposures, thereby extending his palette from the original yellow/orange/red/black range into a spectrum of greens and blues, giving him more options for transforming the reversed views. And he’s become much more comfortable with mixing foreground trees and other natural forms found in the city with the soaring angles of the buildings behind, allowing their movement to bring ghostly outlines and wispy uncertainty to the otherwise crisp man-made forms of urban landscape. In short, he has figured out many of the questions and details that now enable him to control his New York pictures with more sophistication.

Almost none of Chiara’s compositions arrange the city in perfect squared-off order; most instead twist the skyline off kilter a bit, creating steep angles that add energy and a sense of vertical movement. And when he crops the sky down, either removing it entirely or lowering the top edge of the frame to the point that the sky is reduced to yet another shape in the flattened arrangement, the interlocked geometries of the city burst forth. The sharpness of the new lens has made these views even more slashingly tight – the vertical brick edge in his view of East 10th Street at FDR Drive is like a knife cut setting off the smokestack in the distance, and the regular windows in the stair step progression of the building at West 43rd Street at 5th Avenue are so crisp the diptych feels like a deliberately pared down James Casebere construction.

The introduction of the yellow to green to blue to black spectrum is also a significant positive, as it gives Chiara several color options (including bright blueprint, darker cool, and a mossy enveloping funk) to add to the tones of acidic warmth he already had in his artistic arsenal. The combination of deep emerald sky and the cyanotype-style blue (with the building edges turned white) in his view of Pike Street near the Brooklyn Bridge or his building/fire escape study of Henry Street near Rutgers Street is particularly striking, as is the grimy yellow sky that turns to pea soup green as it heads for the trestle girders at West and Chambers Streets. It’s as if Chiara can now calibrate the city’s many personalities more closely, instead of assuming it is always seething with burnt out rage.

This new batch of pictures is also taking better advantage of the all-over patterns available around each corner. Chinatown signage is reversed out into a staccato pulse of lettering, scaffoldings, and fire escapes in Chiara’s image from Forsyth Street near Canal Street, while windswept trees at St. Nicholas Avenue at West 141st Street become ephemeral ghosts, their mottled interrupting presence like a fog of dissolving reality.

Given that each image is a uniquely tinkered exposure, there is a hit or miss quality to some of these outcomes, but Chiara’s ability to manage the combination of image density and on-the-fly color tweaking is clearly getting much more consistent, and part of the engagement these pictures offer is their only-once impermanence. As he assiduously improves his aesthetic options, Chiara is getting closer and closer to being able to capture the complexity and contradiction that lie at the heart of this great city. With these solid new pictures as evidence, he’s clearly evolving in his ability to both visualize New York’s many contradictions and uncover the personal nuances of its ever shifting moods.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $19000 for the single panel works to $42000 for the diptychs. Chiara’s work has only recently begun to enter the secondary markets. The few public transactions that have taken place have done so at prices ranging between roughly $8000 and $17000.

Read more about: John Chiara, Yossi Milo Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Striking images, and super-insightful review both of the work and a photographer’s development.

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