According to Neal Guma, what unites the four photographers in his current show is an approach to photography that is painterly. While Ljubodrag Andric and Robert Polidori often seek out subjects that can look like paintings and play with our perception of them, Markus Brunetti and John Chiara use photography as a painter might paint, manipulating the medium to create effects.
Andric’s photograph “China #8” features a wall of gorgeous, subtly modulated hues. Here washes of mauve, blue and rust are punctuated with touches of scarlet and white. The work is reminiscent of a Color Field painting, where the focus is on the expressive and visual qualities of paint on a flat surface. One of its major proponents, Jules Olitski famously said his work should ideally look like “nothing but some colors sprayed into the air and staying there.”
Andric’s is in some ways a disorienting image. At first, one isn’t sure if it’s a painting or a photograph, or whether it’s flat or has depth. As one approaches, details such as the metal bar that bisects the image, and the areas where the paint has flaked off, emerge. “This painterly and hyper-realism works in reverse in painting,” says Guma. “For instance, when you think of a painter like Velázquez, when you’re far away, his paintings are incredibly real, but when you get up to them they fall apart and you see the individual strokes, the architecture, if you will, which from a distance coalesces to form something of a trompe l’oeil likeness. In this photograph, and also in the Brunetti, the opposite is true. The hyper-reality becomes more intense the closer you get.”
Like Andric, Polidori’s “Hotel Petra No. 7” is an image of decrepitude elevated to the realm of the sublime. “Polidori has found a way to do something very similar to Andric.”
Polidori’s aim is to capture in a photograph of rooms with many coats of different colored flaking paint the quality of a painting. “Hotel Petra” has the balance and integrity of a fully realized abstract painting with color, composition and gesture striking just the right note.
He also wants to capture the history of the place and its decay over the years. The once elegant Hotel Petra is a surrogate for the vibrant and cosmopolitan pre-civil war Beirut. This union of present and past within one image is very much a Polidori hallmark. It’s no surprise he is drawn to places like Havana, Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans—storied places where the images are charged with history, catastrophe or both.
The Andric and Polidori photographs are of man-made subjects, yet Polidori’s stalactite shreds of paint and Andric’s mineral-like wall have the timbre and beauty of natural phenomena.
Brunetti appeared on the art scene to immediate acclaim in 2015 with his series of Western European sacred structures made over the course of 10 years. Brunetti photographed each building in multiple sections, which his partner, Betty Schoener, subsequently assembled to form a composite image. The enormity of the endeavor is clear when you consider that the photographs are composed of thousands of individual frames that all have to be taken under the same conditions of light so that when merged together to create the final image it appears seamless. This laborious process ensures an equal field of focus across the entire surface, giving these photographs extraordinary clarity. Looking at them, it’s as if we’re seeing these iconic buildings for the very first time and we get a sense of the shock and awe they would inspire when initially constructed.
There’s a curious play between the flatness and the detail and, as Guma says, “Brunetti renders these almost as architectural drawings. It’s just the facade. You get some of the nearby buildings, but the town is mostly gone.” In “Amiens, Cathédrale Notre-Dame,” one can enjoy both the remarkable visual effect Brunetti achieves and also appreciate these extraordinary structures and the way they would dominate a town.
Chiara takes on the Flatiron Building as his subject in “West 23rd Street at Broadway, Variation 3,” and tells us something new about the building and photography itself. Taken with a 30″x50″ pinhole camera mounted on the back of a Ford F150 pickup, Chiara shoots directly onto color photographic paper that records in negative, with the shadows and light inverted.
Guma’s version is one of three variations, the lightest and most colorful with its highly keyed yellow and touches of emerald and red. Nevertheless, there’s something rather ghostly about the photograph having to do with the yellow that seems to shroud the image in a weird sulfurous light, and the isolation that recalls Edward Hopper.
The dramatic angle makes the building resemble the prow of a ship, accentuating the forward thrust, and that the early 20th-century building’s distinctive shape was meant to convey movement, speed, modernity.
“Chiara wants to have the process part of the image, the flash of over exposure at the bottom, the curious black and red gestural shapes in the background, the tape marks he leaves behind, the uneven way he cuts the image out. This is a very painterly concept,” says Guma.
The four artists on view have distinct approaches and styles. Each produces works that are visually satisfying enough to appeal without any further knowledge, but the artists’ working process and attitude toward their oeuvres adds a whole other level of appreciation that enhances the viewers’ experience and makes them want to see more.