San Francisco

John Chiara

Environmental concerns have had an undeniable impact on art about landscape, while digital technologies have similarly affected the dialogue around photography, breathing new life into hoary questions regarding the presumptive authenticity of the photographic image. John Chiara’s highly crafted, unique Cibachrome prints address these topical concerns through intensely analog actions producing images of vaporous, sometimes acid-tinged apocalyptic beauty. Chiara’s photographic process involves elements of both large-scale sculpture and endurance-style performance art. The artist builds clunky, toolshed-size cameras, which he lugs to unlikely vistas on a flatbed trailer; over the course of lengthy exposure times, he manipulates the ways in which light streams through the shutter, using his hands to cast shadows onto the Cibachrome paper (no film is used). Then he processes the print in a length of customized sewer pipe.

Chiara’s finished works betray his lo-fi production and strategies of chance—which bring to mind nineteenth-century landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins hauling bulky wet-plate gear up a mountain—and attest to the artist’s command of materials. But while Watkins captured the pristine beauty of the untamed West in crisp, deep-focus images, Chiara’s portrayal of the contemporary California landscape is layered in atmospheric hazes, flares, chemical glitches, harsh sun, and the ghostly outlines of the tape with which he adhered the paper to his camera.

The images are matter-of-factly titled after the Bay Area street intersections where they were made. Grizzly Peak at Summit, 2008, shows a woodsy canyon suffused with a washed-out blue and brown-tinged fog, and is reminiscent of an aura photograph. The upper section of the image features gently arching white shapes; although they suggest the supernatural, they are merely consequences of Chiara’s film processing, painterly flourishes resulting from chemicals washing unevenly across the paper. The effect is easily explained, but appears mysterious.

A different sort of effect is the focal point of 23rd at Starr King, 2008. The camera is positioned within hillside scrub—dry weeds blur the foreground—and trained on neighborhood rooftops, focusing on the glowing diamond shapes atop one building, which turn out to be angled solar panels. These elements seem to concentrate light in the image, in much the same way that the panels themselves generate electricity. If the idea seems too literal, and eco-consciously thematic, Chiara also generates quietly powerful visual tension through the burn of overexposure.

The prints float unglazed in white frames, but the surface of the paper is glossy enough to emulate glass. In their slickness, a striking contrast to their slightly aggressive handmade quality, the pictures reflect the viewer; they appear to change with every slight shift of viewing angle. This occurs with particular force in Mirador at San Pablo, 2008, one of the show’s largest works. It’s a brooding, panoramic sunset-seen-through-the-trees image, with a simmering band of ocher at the center. Because of the darkness of the image, details of a neighborhood below the trees emerge only slowly, as the eye adjusts to the picture’s darkness. The photograph attests to Chiara’s remarkable ability to marshal light within a composition.

Another large work, Lands End at 48th 2005/Starr King at Carolina 2006, 2008, was displayed at table height, in the center of the room. A horizontal double exposure made in successive years—the paper was first exposed at one orientation, then flipped for the next—and processed later, the piece can be viewed from any angle. The work utilizes the artist’s range of vocabulary—the bluish tone, the chemical glitches, the overlaid images of land and sea. The display method emphasizes Chiara’s sculptural impulses, but, more provocatively, cuts the images free of gravity, allowing him, and us, to move more deeply into ambiguous terrain.

Glen Helfand