High Contrast | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Art Review

High Contrast

Art Review


Published December 7, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT:Nick Chappell, photographs and paintings. Studio STK, Burlington. Through December 24

ARTWORK"Double Take" by Nick Chappell

Technology seems to hold greater sway over photography with each digital breakthrough. So it's almost hard to believe that Nick Chappell still produces photos the old-fashioned way: He develops them. At Burlington's Studio STK this month, Chappell presents artistically mature and pleasingly presented photographic landscapes, cityscapes and figurative works, along with a handful of paintings.

Cityscapes have long been a favorite of photomontage artists. Chappell's darkroom technique, referred to as "combination printing," layers negatives to reinterpret urban rhythms. "Kaleidoscope" is an energetic jumble of façades, with angles running in every direction. Interspersed with the buildings are ribbons of roadway; cars and busses entwine the picture plane without regard to "up" or "down." The visual depiction of cacophony recalls the overlapping pistons and agitated cinematography in German Expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis.

Cities that use low-pressure sodium streetlights are bathed in a yellow-orange glow at night; Chappell's "Behind Bars" was taken in such a place. At left in the composition is a modernist façade; an older brick building is at right. Both are "imprisoned" behind the vertical stripes of light -- the translucent bars create a sense of distance between the viewer and the nocturnal scene.

All of Chappell's prints at Studio STK pieces are 12 inches square. That unusual proportion helps tighten his compositions. A foggy portrait of the biggest building in the "city of the big shoulders" -- Chicago's Sears Tower -- makes it look like a groggy giant. A centered yet blurry bundle of dark rectangles fills the vertical axis in the beige, monochromatic photo.

While his city views are jagged or fuzzy, and always abstracted, Chappell's landscapes are crystal-clear. "Hy-lite, High, and Light" consists of three mountain ridges sloping at different angles, and tinted in varied color values. A crisp, ruddy, rocky mountain creates a triangle in the lower right foreground of the composition. A crenellated chain of pale blue summits is in the distance, under a clouded white sky. At the left, sandwiched between foreground and background is an almost black silhouette of boulders. Just as Chappell appreciates the poetic possibilities of city lights, he recognizes how light illuminates the natural architecture of a landscape.

"Antelope Island" portrays an amazing Utah vista of snowy peaks looming over a smooth-as-glass mountain lake. Its composition is similar to that of "Hy-lite, High, and Light," but the view is more expansive. Red boulders are in the foreground, a dark promontory is at left, and the snow-capped Rockies climb skyward in the distance.

Chappell's photographs definitely eclipse his paintings, five of which are in the show. The latter are executed with spray paint and oil. While he does interesting things with textures in his abstract landscapes, Chappell's use of color is quite raw compared to the chromatic sophistication of his photos. The painting "Pi" has three vertical panels, which show the same design of numbers, circles and blue hills from three different depths: far, near and in between. The triptych is interestingly positioned within a red circle, about 6 feet wide and painted directly on the gallery wall. Chappell's enigmatic marriage of painting and mathematics must be clear to him, but it's a little obscure for most viewers. The paintings show, perhaps, that he is a restless, ambitious artist, but the easier rewards, so far, are to be found in his photos.