|John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1989|
I am very familiar with John Chamberlain’s imposing and powerfully present sculptures made of car scrap metal, and had been enchanted by their exhibition at Marfa in Texas when I visited a couple of years ago. But I didn’t know the photographs that he has been making since the 1990s, and yet, he has produced a substantial body of photographic work over the past twenty years or so.
|John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1995|
Of course, the images are gorgeous. I say “of course” because one of the binding characteristics of the art produced at Black Mountain College where Chamberlain studied briefly in the mid-1950s is the exploration of a certain modernist aesthetic that, in turn, emphasizes the pre-eminence of that same aesthetic. It is true that in the case of minimalist works of artists such as John Cage, Allan Kaprow, or even the not-yet-realized Abstract Expressionism of Rauschenberg, they have pushed the aesthetic into unknown and impossible places, pushed towards removal of all aesthetic ornamentation. However, the work of this generation of artists tends to reinforces the beauty of a modernist aesthetic, albeit a different kind of beauty. Thus, it is not surprising that Chamberlain’s photographs are sumptuous, discrete objects that, within their frame, ask that we stand outside of them and admire their aesthetic exploration.
|John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1996|
What is innovative and what makes Chamberlain’s photographs exciting is their mode production. He works with a Widelux camera, a fully mechanical swing-lens panoramic camera first developed in Japan in 1948, and used to document rural and urban landscapes. The camera has a pivoting 26mm lens that enables a 126 degree horizontal view: the resulting image can best be described as a representation of time in motion.
|John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1996|
In their beauty, distortion and their push towards abstraction, Chamberlain’s photographs reminded me of Cy Twombly’s photographs – another Black Mountain College alumni. There is something painterly and ethereal in the way that the camera and Chamberlain’s process renders light in motion across the scene of a public space, at night, and at times, in broad, bright daylight. At times, in images such as both of the Untitled, 1996 above, light in motion becomes the echo of a brushstroke as it passes eloquently across a canvas. The reminder of Twombly’s photographs aside, the clear progenitors of Chamberlain’s photographs are the Hungarian André Kertesz’s distortions of the female body. That said, the visual coincidence and the visual abstraction of concrete form is all that connects them with Kertesz’s mirrored de-formations. Chamberlain is interested in a more expansive, more public landscape, namely urban environments and locations.
|John Chamberlain, Untitled, 1992|
In keeping with their pursuit of abstraction, though the photographs — at least the ones exhibited at Galerie Karsten Greve — are typically taken in urban environments, namely New York City, Paris, they are very much in keeping with what Chamberlain does with the car metal. Like the sculptures, these images come to resemble organic forms and natural worlds: curvilinear distortions that might be water flowing and reflecting, or sunsets reflecting on mirrored lenses. Human beings, often Chamberlain himself, also flow and morph into forms and shapes that have nothing to do with the complications of urban sophistication.
For all of the beauty of Chamberlain’s photographs —and every visitor will be charmed by these images — I am still not convinced that there is anything after the techniques and formal distortions. The colors and manipulation of light are mesmerizing, but the images of New York are not so different from those of Paris, to the point where I wonder if he is not perhaps doing the same thing over and over again? But again, given the clear modernist pursuit of and fascination with the medium and aesthetic renderings, perhaps this is just the point? And, to be sure, I can't think of any other artist who is collapsing the interstice between painting, photography and cinema with quite the same degree of innovation and sophistication.
All images courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve and the Artist