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Seven Settings [Transcript]

Ever intriguing, always hard to explain, what the photographs of Carl Chiarenza are like are not what they are. Writers—the photographer himself—have likened the photographs to the dissonant chords of modern music or to the late quartets of Beethoven. Matched them also to the transforming aspects of poetry, or to the beauty of Oriental paintings. Most often the cited paragon is the peaks and chasms of landscapes, the vegetation of deep woods, a lunar map. All are valid, handsome similes. Chiarenza after all is a musician with a taste for Mozart and jazz; he writes poetry from time to time; is a teacher of art history.

Less specifically because abstract, these photographs bridge the distance between poetic thought and execution. Think what the senses owe the interval: the chord, when it is sounded, if at all; the chasm, for the nerves of headlong fall; the chart, which used to plot where our own beings were, can mark where they are not. Not form but process, sound not music, voice not poetry, setting not landscape. These photographs are more simply, more perfectly, about something specific. They’re about light.

Burdened with the idea of photographic abstraction, I prefer to think about the particularities of the constructions Chiarenza makes for the camera. I wonder at the process of arrangement that must at times be delicate, sometimes rough. I imagine tearing, crumpling paper left over from film packs and photo paper boxes, thin metal being scissored. The searching through leftover stuff. The look and feel of hot lights focused on small places. Trial and error. Later in the darkroom he makes discarded and discardable objects beautiful by working the silvery tonalities of the photographic print. It’s not easy, this performance of picture making. Maybe that’s the point.

Set-ups, these photographs are settings for meaning. In each of the photographs there is a justness, timing, and feeling for pictorial relationships that can only come with experience and patience. For the photographer the manipulation of light is by turns the sculpting of form of the negation of space. Light held by a surface gives us a new perception of old materials; light withheld frightens for a purpose; the dark in every photograph gives us courage. By concentrating on the abstract relationships within the frame we locate the big questions we are rarely given the opportunity to recognize.

You can see what I mean best in looking at the folds and pleats, the indentations of forms. Enlarged, described with a leman light, they substantiate our beliefs in the interludes. After long preparation and many missed turns, perceptive individuals may participate fully in a recognizable event of genuine significance to them and to others. In art it is a rare accomplishment.

The themes that span and unite the extended body of these photographs necessarily have epic dimensions. They also assert themselves in very down-to-earth ways. For instance nail holes—maybe bullet holes?—and patterned paper keep us to the specific. And you can’t see these images without an encounter with blackness and dark places. It is a continuity worth looking for. Not just that black suggests the power of mystery or the brooding quality of foreboding, but it guides us around these pictures, giving shape and clues to symbolically recognizable forms. It’s what turns the larger action of the pictures.

The photographs here included have a charm that is almost impossible to resist. They are just such a delight to look at that we are not merely able but happy to imagine that there is nothing to them except charismatic shadows worked in photographic emulsion. Yet once we know how to decode them, they function as an indispensable evocation of life. Far more than beautiful or rugged landscape is at stake here. The negative density underscores the seriousness of the entire territory. Black provokes us. Simultaneously confounding and stimulating, there is the dark there is no accommodating the eye to.

The particular light of a place stays in our eyes, changes the way they look. I’m not making this up, it’s a fact of psychophysiology. But along with a sense of destiny in these photographs, there is also free will. Though elegantly fixed in the print, each shape in these photographs is a body of light with the capacity to generate thought and movement. The whole appears seamless, but the more you look, the more the different parts call for attention, from the flexible edge of ragged paper to the dark densities of a smooth-coated foil. Where Chiarenza’s photographs are concerned, it is for the observer, not the photographer, to open up. For these settings, illumination, not description is the photographer’s goal.

Merry Foresta
Curator, National Museum of American Art