JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 color photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the East and West gallery spaces and in the connecting hallway. 18 of the works are negative chromogenic photographs (either single images or diptychs), made in 2015 and 2016. Physical sizes range from roughly 34×28 to 50×38 (each panel), and all of the prints are unique. The other 4 works are images on Ilfachrome paper, made in 2016. Physical sizes of these prints range from 50×30 to 50×55, and again, all of the prints are unique. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Every recent arrival to New York has felt it – the heavy weight of passing indifference that this big, bustling city lays down. And for each and every one us, making the city our own (in some small manner) and finding a place for ourselves within its larger context provides plenty of daily challenge.
For artists and photographers, this orientation task is particularly difficult, because so many worthy predecessors have already laid claim to the territory with iconic flair, imprinting their versions of its personality in our collective visual and cultural memory. As an outsider, to come to this city and to attempt to make original photographs of its familiar buildings and urban skylines takes a certain degree of aesthetic self confidence, given the hordes who have broken their picks on these very rocks before.
In his newest works, San Francisco-based photographer John Chiara has taken up the gauntlet thrown down by New York and largely proven himself worthy. Armed with his hand-built room-sized cameras (perhaps better described as camera and darkroom in one, given the camera obscura process) and the back of a pickup truck, he towed his bulky boxes around town, looking up at familiar landmarks and ordinary buildings, making pictures in a variety of neighborhoods. In his results, we find a distinctly moody energy, punctuated by acidic oranges and yellows that slither and seethe across cramped skies and steep verticals.
In contrast to his lushly dreamy images from California and Mississippi, Chiara’s New York pictures are much more hemmed in by the edges of the cityscape, and he’s used those hard lines and contrasts to his advantage. Combining a from-below perspective and the tonal inversion of negative reversal, Chiara’s pictures carve the sky into formal angles, with building silhouettes and bridge girders defining the space where blackness and bright color fight for dominance. We can of course recognize the triangle-covered façade of the Hearst Tower, the flat sweep of square windows of the Standard Hotel, and the soaring spire of 1 WTC, but he’s upended our usual experience of these architectural landmarks by bathing them in an apocalyptic stew of burning warmth. Less famous apartment blocks and brownstones are no less striking, their criss-crossed fire escapes and geometric roof lines given bold energy by fiery tonalities and gurgling skies. For those who like fantasy comparisons, a back-and-forth show with Vera Lutter’s New York pictures is worth thinking about, as Chiara sees the city much less squared off than Lutter, with more improvisational looseness.
The back gallery houses Chiara’s images from the Hudson River Valley, a landscape staked out with authority by an entire school of celebrated painters. Here, Chiara walks with softer steps, his views more humble and routine, especially when the tonalities are normal (positive) rather than negative. While evergreens and thin winter forests are energized by his electric oranges, on the whole, these works are much less memorable, as if he couldn’t quite find his own voice in these muted New England views – they are closer in aesthetics to his earlier works, but largely without the ephemeral uncertainty that gave those pictures life.
Like many artists approaching new places, Chiara needed to find a “way in” to each particular setting, to develop a method for applying his unique vision to the nuances of the available subject matter. In New York city, he discovered a powerful confluence of angled views and saturated color, while in the Hudson Valley, he never quite found a new place to stand. One led to brashly strong pictures, the best of which can hold their own with timeless classics of New York city photography, while the other led to more inconclusive results. Perhaps it came down to the nature of the two challenges – the city energetically daring him to bring his artistic best, and the country welcoming his photographic wanderings with muted stillness.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $14000 to $24000, based on size, with many already sold. 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.