by Robert J. Hughes
A sculptor is interested in forms in space, in light on forms, in gravity and presence. The sculptor John Chamberlain (who died last year) explored those ideas in his vibrant and glowing photographs too.
Using a Widelux camera, which is able to capture a wide angle without distortion, Chamberlain recorded images in a cinematic way – capturing motion, but blurring them into abstracts that seem like swaths of color smeared on a canvas by Gerhard Richter: reality as a remembered rush of light and movement. The resulting photos complement Chamberlain's brawny auto-parts sculptures, which show stillness as a distillation of energy.
In his photographs, Chamberlain doesn't try to represent motion in the manner of Edweard Muybridge, displaying how the human or animal form can speed through space. What Chamberlain does is present motion as density, as a blur of colors in relation to each other, as optical impressions in a deep and shifting plane.
Chamberlain often took his photos without looking through the viewfinder, moving the camera through the air to capture the scene in its un-photographic reality – not representational but improvisational: intuitive, even sculptural. Somehow, he was able to give depth to a two-dimensional image. If you can recall one of Frank Stella's three-dimensional sculptural paintings, you can see that what Chamberlain has done in his photographs is to make a two-dimensional space one that bristles with a thereness, as if the images were to project outward toward the viewer. They also have a Warholian ordinariness, a Pop Art sensibility of everyday nothingness transformed into something worthy of regard.
The beautiful photos on display at Karsten Greve show Chamberlain's interest in light and the perception of color through time; that is, capturing a blink through a shutter. Le Foyer, for example, shows the squiggles of color of an entryway, with its lamps, its windows, its yellow and red lines blurred in an excitement of entering or leaving. Yet it has a magical kind of coiled animation, too, like sprung rhythm.
John Chamberlain, Le Foyer, 1990, h: 50.8 x w: 61 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Karsten Greve.
Two photographic studies show a cat, coming or going, past what looks like one of Chamberlain's sculptures made of junked auto parts. The point isn't to capture the cat – this isn't one of those cutesy kitten photos with a jokey caption – but to show the stealthy tread of a curious creature under the neon glare of a studio; it's droll and just a little ghostly.
So, too, are the photos in which Chamberlain himself appears, a blur of a person caught as if by accident in a lens. For anyone who's seen the out-of-focus self-portraits of people snapping themselves with their iPhones, looking too closely at the camera and too intent on recording an instant rather than living it, these "portraits" will seem familiar. But Chamberlain isn't interested in portraiture at all; a person is an accident in space here. Chamberlain is the passerby with the average air who happens to be present when the lens snaps – in this case it's his own – and records a fleeting instant.
Chamberlain's presence adds a weird depth to these studies of color and movement, as if to show us that we're also just abstract forms in what we think of as a recognizable landscape that can become distorted through the tricks we play on our vision through memory. What we see is false, that is, we rely on our senses in a way that can be deceptive because, after all, you can't trust your senses, since they're too easily tricked. Chamberlain doesn't give us a psychological portrait of the artist as someone living an imagined life, but a subject in a moment in a passing blur of reflection. Passing life through shifting light.
One photo is just of a clenched fist in the left of the frame that shows an architectural form – a portico of some sort – in blue and beige and shadow. It's about nothing other than the faint fuzzy image of, well, nothing: just form and color and the implication of whatever we wish it to be. This isn't about representation but the color, the line, the depth and the impression.
An untitled photo gives us a chandelier blossoming like an ecstatic electric flower at the center of the arc of a ceiling at a restaurant. To the bottom right is a person's face, looking down at the camera – Chamberlain must have been holding the camera at seat level – looking very much like a creature captured and displayed in a neon aquarium.
Another photograph shows a woman's head multiplied several times in a blur of wavy lines, as if she were a frieze on an invisible monument. This is an eerie and beautiful image, and alludes to sculptural photography.
John Chamberlain's photos are worth the gazing. They aren't about the detail – these aren't deep studies of remembered particulars – but about the play of light on surface (as in a sculpture) and the nature of forms in motion.
They're also surprisingly reflective, that is, meditative. Chamberlain was able to imply a sense of wonder by rendering the everyday world through a guerilla snapshot style that shows us how much we miss if we simply rely on what we see, rather than on exploring what we record. These photos are meditation in motion.
—Robert J. Hughes
(Image on top: John Chamberlain, Laperouse, 1989, 50.8 x 61 cm; Courtesy of Galerie Karsten Greve.)