The aim of art, as defined by Russian writer and critic Viktor Shklovsky in his 1925 essay “Art as Technique,” is to render objects “unfamiliar…make forms difficult [and] to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” This is a strange and counterintuitive formulation, one that seems especially unsuited to a medium as lucid as photography. Yet you need only look at the work of John Chiara, on view at the Yossi Milo Gallery through May 21, to know that Shklovsky is exactly right.
Chiara’s process, now familiar to fans of his photography, is as unconventional as his work. He uses large homemade cameras – crude pinhole affairs – that he lugs around on a flatbed trailer. (One is so big that he can actually stand inside it.) Once at a desired location – in this case, New York City and upstate, along the Hudson river – Chiara sets up shop and, like an explorer or scientist, takes a reading of the light.
The results are rough, oversaturated photographs that are more reminiscent of batik prints in their infrared serendipity. The fire escapes and familiar buildings are proof that we are in New York, but Chiara’s color palette suggests that there’s been a radioactive catastrophe. This eerily apocalyptic atmosphere is only reinforced by the absence of people. Chiara’s shots are taken from the street, pointing up. He is alone, apparently dumbstruck by towering forms.
Which isn’t to say that his work is science fiction. In fact, the opposite is true. Walking through the exhibition, we are reminded more than anything of our own daily experience of New York. Don’t we all, at times, feel estranged from the city? Can’t Manhattan seem especially forbidding at times? Fulfilling Shklovsky’s dictum, Chiara defamiliarizes the city to throw its actual strangeness into relief. He subverts our habits of looking in order to make us see. His color palette might seem strange, but you recognize his emotions right away. Chiara’s work carries the visceral truth of a dream.