In the 1960s, the Italian artist Lucio Fontana created Concetto Spaziale, a series of paintings that challenged established notions of the pictorial plane by slashing and poking holes in the canvas. Fontana explained, “I make a hole in a canvas in order to leave behind the old pictorial formulae, the painting and the traditional view of art, and I escape, symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface.” Visiting Ride Into the Sun, Chris McCaw’s new exhibition at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, I could not help but compare the striking gesturalism punctuating McCaw’s photographs to Fontana’s. Aside from the evident formal similarity in the two artists’ works, it is interesting to note how both respond to the changes wrought by technology, despite their use of different materials and the forty years dividing their practices. Impressed by the dawn of the space age, Fontana felt strongly that art should dynamically alter the space by which it was defined, an interest that led him to try and combine architecture, sculpture, and painting into a new aesthetic language. In an era when analog photography is languishing on the heels of perpetual innovations in the field of digital technology, McCaw’s use of traditional photographic materials to unparalleled effect suggests that perhaps we have prematurely discounted the potential of these tools.
These photographs are produced through an elaborate process that relies on both calculated finesse and unadulterated chance. McCaw works with various hand-built view cameras of sizes up to 30 by 40 inches, which are equipped with vintage military optics designed to let in a lot of light. Rather than using film negatives, he shoots directly onto a variety of expired silver gelatin papers, a decision that further highlights the sense of immediacy intrinsic to this work. Extended exposures ranging from several hours to a full 24-hour period overexpose the photographic paper, resulting in an effect called solarization – a reversal of tonality due to excessive light.
Additionally, the concentrated strength of the sun entering the camera can literally burn the surface of the paper, resulting in beautiful marks that embody both fragility and brute force, or creation and destruction. The remarkable control evinced in these photographs is a testament to McCaw’s meticulous refinement of this process over the past eight years. While the sun may be considered a collaborator in this process, his sophisticated understanding of materials and environment is evident in the controlled, wide-ranging results: from singular, precise crescents to ostensibly violent gashes. Beautiful wisps of orange peek through the dark background and feather the bold lacerations in Sunburned GSP#467 (Full day/Puget Sound, WA), a consequence of the gelatin in the paper literally being cooked. Yet despite the complexity of this approach, McCaw’s photographs retain a beautiful sense of effortlessness and quietude, resulting in an elegant amalgam of abstraction and landscape.
The significance of time and place in these photographs cannot be discounted. A number of the works in this exhibition were taken during two recent trips to the Arctic Circle during the summer when daylight lasts 24 hours. Sunburned GSP#485 (North Slope Alaska/24 hours) is a seamlessly stitched together sequence of 14 prints that map the sun’s undulating path across the horizon with only a subtle nod to the landscape through the faint impression of mountains. With just the information conveyed by the sun’s angle and its trace on the paper, in conjunction with minimal indicators of environment, one can garner a sense of where and when the photograph is made. At the same time, these works engage with more conceptually-driven notions of the immensity of the universe and the Infinite, a concern shared by Fontana, who stated, “[t]he discovery of the Cosmos is a new dimension, it is the Infinite: so I make a hole in the canvas, which is the basis for all previous art, to search for an infinite dimension.” McCaw’s work offers a lens through which to consider these interests in the context of the twenty-first century society.
Chris McCaw: Ride Into the Sun is on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco through December 22, 2011.