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Chewing the Scenery

Group show examines what we look at when we look at landscapes

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2008:08:11 16:45:29

A John Chiara photograph

You & Me Living Today/ Vol. 2/ The Land

Through Aug. 28 at Gallery Four

The title of Gallery Four’s current show—You & Me Living Today—sounds like a helplessly precious indie film, but nothing in the show itself cloys. Instead, the second volume of the two-part show—the first, held earlier this summer, dealt with portraiture—is focused, if at times obtusely, on landscape, or, as the show’s subtitle reads, “The Land.”

Although the four included artists—two photographers, a painter, and a video artist—do not share much thematically or aesthetically, the show’s tone is nonetheless set by San Francisco photographer John Chiara, who recently completed a one-month residency in the gallery’s new studio space for visiting artists.

Chiara is best known for his “unique photographs,” images produced from a large format camera he made that can be mounted on a flatbed trailer and used to photograph and develop images of the great outdoors in a single step. The first image in the show, “Seventh Street at Laney (Artist Unknown),” is one of several older pieces in an exhibition made up of mostly new work. The photograph depicts a rusted iron modernist sculpture—the type that appears to have been produced assembly-line style for corporate parks and school yards in the 1960s and ’70s—covered with graffiti. The photograph’s small size, just four inches by four inches, and washed-out colors make it appear like it could have been a found object, an assumption that is only further supported by Chiara’s own label of “(Artist Unknown).”

But read another way, Chiara could be using the work’s title to refer to the artist who produced the sculpture, or the graffiti artists who tagged it. By reconsidering the photograph’s status as the objet d’art, Chiara allows his pieces to be viewed as “part photography, part event and part sculpture,” as he describes them on his web site.

Chiara’s second piece, “Echo Lake at Meyers Grade,” one of the largest works in the show, takes this tripartite mission seriously, as Chiara picks the most mundane location—a mishmash of wrecked guardrails, overgrown weeds, and poorly sited houses—for a work that actively rejects the aesthetic traditions of landscape photography. Instead of showing a comfortable view of objects in perspective, the piece challenges viewers to see the very large image as a landscape at all and to look for a reason for any of the objects to be in the photograph.

Another of Chiara’s works, three silver gelatin photographs all taken while Chiara was in Baltimore, shows that even his more traditional photography exposes dead spaces by using objects—such as rusted sculptures—to reveal the invisibility of the landscape in which they sit.

In the center of the exhibit, two videos by Christine Bailey are projected on large walls, and while watching the silent, black and white, computer-animated video “Leda” you can see “Echo Lake” in the background, which brings together Chiara’s physical method of producing photographs and Bailey’s digital creations. In “Leda,” and in the sound-color piece “Tkachiev/Lighthouse,” Bailey uses digital video to create landscapes that share Chiara’s ambivalence about objects and perspective. In “Pkachiev/LighThouse,” a wooden raft with a sail appears to approach land slowly over the period of a day; as soon as the land is reached, the raft hurries away from it, with houses, buildings, and other structures disappearing rather than receding into the horizon.

Jacqueline Schlossman’s color photographs of golf courses also show an interest in objects, but her focus is on landscaping, the meticulous designing, planting, and pruning of grass, shrubbery, and trees. The photographs presented here were taken throughout the United States—California, Ohio, Oregon, Maryland, Texas, and California appear—but what is striking is Schlossman’s demonstration that the nature/culture distinction is almost invisible in America’s fairways. Even the imperfectly pruned shrubs, or the hints of local or regional identity, are overwhelmed by the landscaper’s project of making every planted object functionally invisible.

Three paintings by James Rieck stretch the definition of landscape, as two of them are of objects—an expensive charcoal grill and a chainsaw—that effect landscapes rather than reflect them, while a third painting of an SUV rolling over a mountain stream is the most literal piece in the show. While Rieck’s images appear to be readymades, as if they were copied from commercials, the paintings are oil on canvas, giving the works a permanence they might not have otherwise had.

The show closes with three more images of the sculpture in “Seventh Street at Laney.” While the first photograph was taken in 1995, these three images are from 2005, and view the sculpture from different perspectives. Chiara manipulates his images, but not with the usual digital toolkit. Instead, his production of “unique photographs” asks you to take the image as it is—ugly, out of place, ignored—and look at it closely, in search of signs for its relationship to the long tradition of the landscape.

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