The light and dark interplay of Fax Ayres’ imagery

Fax Ayres’ contemporary, playful and sometimes unsettling photography is captured in “Still” at Chroma Projects through February 28. Courtesy of the artist Fax Ayres’ contemporary, playful and sometimes unsettling photography is captured in “Still” at Chroma Projects through February 28. Courtesy of the artist

Do we continue to have time to admire the still life? In a world where disposable and looping ultra-high resolution video pops from the phones in our pockets, the composed scenes of the genre require more from our attention. The art form that originated with painting centuries ago has been criticized for nearly as long for lacking meaning.

That issue doesn’t weigh heavily on the striking and irreal photographs of Fax Ayres in his exhibition “Still” at Chroma Projects.

Ayres says that his works aim to suggest “something enigmatic—larger and sometimes darker, than the things themselves.” But whatever connotations the artist intends, they take a back seat to his studied creation process and his methodical craftsmanship.

Taking the works at face value, it’s difficult to discern if they are paintings, photos or a mixed media that lands somewhere in between. That’s their charm. Ayres states that it’s his intention to “merge the aesthetics of photography and painting,” and by that measure he succeeds greatly. Light and dark interplay with the pooled and smeared profundity of oil paint, while uneven surfaces of tree bark and stone are rendered in what could be hyperrealistic brushwork or the result of a smartly angled lens.

His still lifes are the result of moving from a rather straightforward and even illumination of his subjects to a darkened studio where he reshoots portions of the same scene in separate and experimental captures. Reassembling the pictures in Photoshop, he creates an altogether novel view. “When I’m doing these individual component shots, it often feels like I am applying the light to the object the way you might apply paint to a canvas,” Ayres says.

No one can question the painterly quality of the works. They look like rich photographs that originate from a more luxurious place than the latest photo filtering app. But here comes that age-old consideration: What does it all mean?

The still lifes are culled from Ayres’ children’s rooms, his wife’s stuff and his own found objects. Amidst rudimentary machines and stone slabs, gourds and action figures stand in forced interaction on the stages of Ayres’ interior universe. Flirting with surrealist touchstones like clock faces and eggs found in Salvador Dalí’s most famous pieces, the photos tinker with weight and hints of narrative. “Gourd #1” floats miraculously above a scale, while the plants of “Gourd #2” are engaged in a desirous or antagonistic choreography. The next installment appears more decorative, like a minimalist Thanksgiving display in a house high on upcycled wood.

“The Parlous Egg” and “The Egg Laboratory” reveal a dry comic sensibility, while other photos draw on the interplay of familiar figures like Marge Simpson, Batman, and Winnie the Pooh embroiled in contentious or hazardous situations from a child’s playtime. The exterior night photographs “Birch Grove, Onteora” and “Old Pool Gate, Onteora” make use of the painterly composite technique to spectacular results; freed from the studio trappings and any expectation of narrative, the quiet of nature presents a sublime and unsettling beauty that is truly still.

Perhaps the trompe l’oeil in Ayers’ work is not that his images trick the viewer into thinking that the objects are actually occupying space within the confines of the print, but that the subjects could have been real when he snapped the picture, despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary.