Crestmont at CoralMay 2, 2012
John Chiara’s exhibition, Crestmont at Coral, is universally compelling; its less successful pieces diminished only by the resonant power of the other artworks. The twelve pieces that compose his first solo show with Haines Gallery were created through a unique photographic process that Chiara has developed over the past decade. They evidence his subtle control over unstable methods and his mature willingness to take risks. Physically, the works in Cresmont at Coral are more intimate than the large landscapes Chiara has shot in the past. They are all vertically oriented, neither huge nor small, and create private spaces in which to reflect. The elegiac, sun-soaked vistas they depict evoke a half-remembered, soulful longing that grows and deepens with prolonged contemplation.
Chiara’s is a strange sort of photography. He makes his work using large, hand-built cameras, the biggest of which he hauls around on a trailer. In contrast to the speed and immediacy of today’s digital imaging, photographing with these cameras is painstaking and laborious, rarely yielding more than a few shots per day. Chiara’s exposures are each unique because he shoots positives onto Ilfochrome paper rather than negatives onto film. Developing each shot by hand in a sealed PVC pipe magnifies the idiosyncrasies—the irregular effects of chemistry and agitation combining with artifacts from light leaks, erratically cut edges, residual tape marks, and Chiara’s intuitive in-camera dodging and burning. The resulting artworks are amalgamated objects—equal parts sculpture, drawing, and painting.
It is easy to focus on the novelty of Chiara’s process, in part because it curiously harkens back to the daguerreotypes of yesteryear and simultaneously resonates with a contemporary DIY aesthetic. Novelty aside, the work Chiara produces is impressive even without one knowing how it was created. Numerous aspects of the pieces should not work but do: the jaggedly cut photo paper; the out-of-focus, overly dark, and blown-out exposures; and the glare that ripples across each work’s undulating surface. Such effects on their own are crude and unrefined, but together these elements alchemically combine and become elegant.
While the golden-hued Coral End (2012) and cloud-strewn Starr King at Coral (2012) are both standout individual works, the strongest pieces in the exhibition are its three diptychs. The first, Goldmine: Diamond: Coral (2012), presents two near-duplicate images of an eerie, misty green, scrub-covered hillside. Each is a double exposure that merges two views from the same location. By doubling this layered construction, Chiara highlights both the inimitable nature of the process and the critical impact of the work’s irregular edges, incidental chemical effects, and residual tape marks—rather than true copies, the two halves exist as divergent twins. When a viewer compares one image to the other, similarities and differences emerge. Rather than working to decode any riddle, the act of continually looking back and forth builds a meditative sensation similar to watching waves break endlessly on a beach.
The other horizontal diptych, Coral: Marview: Burnett (Stereographic) (2012), acts in a similar fashion to the first, presenting a pair of double exposures, side by side. However,
instead of nearly identical images, it presents photographic triangulations from similar but slightly displaced vantage points. This bifocal effect, hinted at by the parenthetical content of its title, produces a shifting, swirling sensation as one looks back and forth at the two halves. In both images, glittering beams of sunlight pierce and refract in the milky opalescent atmosphere. This sun-soaked sheen, like the rest of Chiara’s process, obscures as much as it reveals and inflects the work with a sense of foreboding.
Unlike the other two diptychs, Crestmont End (Upper-East and Lower-East) (2012) has a vertical orientation, and its two halves present single though overlapping images of the same location. The vertical stacking accentuates the stand of slender eucalyptus trees that is partially present in the lower image and fully depicted in the upper. The trees spring from the top of a tiered concrete retaining wall, dotted with twiggy shrubs and dangling rosemary. A solitary streetlight stands like a sentinel in the center of the lower image and pokes its head into the image above. Stretched across the two images, the scene feels impossibly tall; the trees loom menacingly and induce a lingering disquiet that cannot be shrugged off.
The imagery in all of Chiara’s work is mundane—neglected urban infrastructure and unremarkable landscapes edged by overgrown embankments. Yet somehow in Chiara’s hands, these otherwise banal scenes become quietly mythic. Neither joyful nor nostalgic, they exist in a place of bitter sweetness akin to adult remembrances of childhood. They are glittering remnants of fleeting moments, sun-drenched ghosts that capture the inexplicable way certain details persist in our psyches. They are photographs that do not so much depict memories as capture what it feels like to remember.