It’s easy, given our climatically troublous times, to discern global warming as the subtext of this fortuitous pairing of Chris McCaw’s luminous Sunburned solar photographs and Mario Giacomelli’s Paesaggi studies of the furrowed, seemingly scorched Italian landscape; it’s also erroneous (at least in Giacomelli’s case) since, in 1992, when this 37-year series concluded, almost no one but veep-elect Gore was awake to the onrushing inconvenience to consumers. (One source says the series ended even earlier, in 1980.) The contemporary trend of interpreting artwork through sociopolitical lenses is certainly beneficial in many respects — why can’t art be relevant and do some work in the world? If it sometimes leads us esthetically astray, well, accidents and errors can be useful in art viewing just as they are in art creation, and we deserve a bit of retroactive anxiety, anyway: atonement for having so long dodged the burning issue of the day.
Accident and error played a role in creating McCaw’s Sunburned series of eerily calm, otherworldly depictions of the sun’s passage through the sky over vast watery expanses or empty western landscapes. In 2003, McCaw was shooting starry skies while camping. He overslept one night (aided by whiskey and friends), and found the next morning that the overexposed film in his eastward-pointing camera had melted along the focused trajectory of the rising sun. “The sun rose into the lens, physically changing the film inside the camera in a violent way, and also changing the way I think of photography. After a few years of pondering… in late 2006 I began to really investigate the implications of that event.” He now loads vintage black-and-white photo enlarging paper (still somewhat accessible, though rare) into custom-made large-format (4×5 to 30×40) view cameras outfitted with gigantic military-reconnaissance lenses weighing up to six pounds and spanning nearly nine inches (as large as a giant squid’s eye, that is). The sun’s heat energy is focused onto the paper, scorching the gelatin, and, due to the quirks of photo chemistry, a positive image of the scene is captured.
McCaw’s unique prints thus come into the world through negative-less parthenogenesis; they’re solar (and stellar) images, merging science photography, land art and conceptual art. The thirteen works on view here are visually as well as thematically rich: the slashed surfaces recall Lucio Fontana’s canvases of the 1960s, while the burning/cauterizing recalls Jay McCafferty’s Solar Burns grid abstractions of the 1970s. The crepuscular silvery-gray tonalities, long-exposures, and vignetting suggest scientific/astronomic expedition reports from some alternate Edwardian Age. The diagonal streaks in the sky may be familiar to astronomical photographers, but, scorched by the sun, and smoldering in-camera during exposure, they conjure more threatening celestial bodies like falling meteors, or missiles; the glowing orbs and luminous auras suggest the spiritualized landscapes of Friedrich and Rothko, as well as paranormal realms.
Spiritualized landscapes are the subject, too, of Giacomelli’s landscapes, or paesaggi, of his native Senigallia nelle Marche, on the Adriatic coast, where he spent his career in self-taught obscurity until his discovery the 1960s (he died in his seventies a decade ago). Senigallia, built by the Romans, but later destroyed by Pompey, fortified by the Byzantines and razed by Goths and Lombards and the Guelph-Ghibelline conflicts of the Renaissance, became the very symbol of a ruined city in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Italy’s ancient past emanates from these works (despite their superficial resemblance to Wayne Thiebaud’s semi-abstract California landscapes).
We are used to thinking about the historically burnished scenic perfection of Italy, but the eighteen photos of this series, eleven of which are shown here, depict, whatever the touristic reality may be, a rather severe landscape rendered in 1960s high-contrast back and white, with a high horizon line, plowed and furrowed, worked and reworked. The land is depicted here, in very contemporary terms, as an abstraction created by unwitting groundling artists, a palimpsestic tableau of gestures and messages partially effaced or overwritten by time and human activity. Giacomelli’s use of double exposure, while subtle, enhances the historical aspect of his subjective, imaginative version of neorealism.
Chris McCaw Sunburned and Mario Giacomelli Paesaggi @ Stephen Wirtz Gallery through March 27, 2010