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Abstract and Back Again

Untitled 195, 190, 188
Untitled 253

Carl Chiarenza’s photographs at the UB Anderson Gallery

A major exhibit of Carl Chiarenza’s photographs at the UB Anderson Gallery reveals how his work progressed from initially pictorial semi-abstract to full-scope abstract, then back to semi-abstract, but of a much more specifically photographic character than the original pictorial work. The later semi-abstractions consisting of elements not so much found in the external world as devised and constructed in the photographic studio, much the way the full-scope abstractions were created, from bits and pieces of torn paper, fabric, foil, and sundry manufactured items, of different materials, textures, patterns, and light reflection effects. All the photographs are in lush black and white.

The work as a whole—the whole artistic voyage, out and back—is testimony to the ultimate futility—but not in the sense of purposeless, ineffectual, vain—of abstraction.

Among posted writings related to the exhibit is art critic Jerry Saltz’s Abstract Manifesto, in Twenty Parts. Following Saltz’ sadmission in a preamble that he is unable to define abstraction, the first numbered part declares, “Abstraction is one of the greatest visionary tools ever invented by human beings to imagine, decipher, and depict the world.” Another part states, “All art is abstract. A painting of a person or a still-life is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional reality and therefore infinitely abstract. Whenever an artist sets out to make something, it turns into something else…”

If all art, including representational art, is abstract, so all abstract art is somehow representational. Because we read meaning into everything. And read two-dimensional images as images of things in the real world, which is three-dimensional.

Chiarenza’s penchant for abstraction shows early on—late 1950s, early 1960s—in his selection of visually mysterious subject matter, such as an ice formation on a barn wall, or what seems to be dried salt wash residue on an ocean boat glass window. Such barely decipherable matter soon gives way to more or less totally indecipherable, whether found materials in nature or arranged in the studio. At first it’s hard to tell. Then to the main body of work, clearly studio compositions.

A piece near the entrance to the exhibit, from 1993, is a type of the main body of work. Called an untitled triptych, you have to strain to see the joins of the three parts, which present a continuous image of horizontal layering of unknown materials, evoking ideas and interpretations from a ham sandwich to geological strata, a geological event. Orogeny.

The triptych idea is thematic and enigmatic. Of multiple parts, but untraditionally in art historical terms as to a triptych, of a single continuous image, a single photo, cut into parts and the parts put back together again, like a puzzle solved, though not for the viewer. And sometimes seamlessly, or almost, so that you have to move in close and look carefully. Other times, the three parts individually framed and the frames abutted, preserving—sort of—the single image. Preserving and destroying.

Toward the end of the exhibit space is a room devoted to two series, one of works titled Solitude, plus a number, the other of works titled Peace Warrior, plus a number, and sometimes subcategory designation, either Samurai or Don Quixote. The Peace Warrior series is from 2003, the Solitude series from 2004. Works in both series are basically abstract collage arrangements of what look to be found materials, metal and fabric, torn and crumpled, and nondescript manufactured items, but in the Peace Warrior series arranged with a distinct eye to the creation of humanoid forms, sometimes in active combat poses, sometimes as dual forms in combat opposition, with suggestions of arms and armor, capes, helmets, shields, swords, lances. A year later, in the Solitude works, back to more strictly abstract forms, geometrical, circles or parts of circles, parts of triangles and rectangles, and somewhat lesser degree of crumple. Nothing humanoid suggestive. Nothing dramatic active. Dürer’s Melancholia comes to mind. Human activity as cerebral, meditational, about mathematical ideas, Platonic forms.

Always just enough trade back and forth between abstract and representational to keep the seminal dichotomy in play.

The Chiarenza exhibit was curated by artist and photography scholar Robert Hirsch. The exhibit continues through February 24.

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