The Allure of the Fold: Chuck Kelton’s View Not From a Window

by Deborah Barkun, Ph. D., Creative Director of the Berman Museum of Art

The chemograms and photograms of Chuck Kelton’s series, View Not From a Window, range from hushed and minimal to lush and turbulent. An artist and master printer, here Kelton makes cameraless photographs, in full daylight, through painterly manipulations of darkroom chemistry and mineral compounds on photosensitive paper, using formulas derived from 19th- and early 20th-century photography manuals. While the works vary in temperament and scale, the artist’s distinctive folding of the paper unifies the ongoing series. The resultant crease materializes as a visible horizon line, rendering abstraction legible as landscape. The deliberate act of folding violates the sanctity of the photographic paper, fracturing the photosensitive emulsion—responsible for generating the medium’s illusory effects—thereby transgressing conventions of the medium. With the addition of the fold, Kelton’s chemical orchestrations transform into sublime panoramas of sepia tides, violet peaks, and indigo storm clouds. The artist’s transgression goes beyond the physical surface of the paper, however, to become conceptually central to the series. In View Not From a Window, Kelton shatters not only the paper’s pristine surface; he also shatters the notion of the “window” itself to create photographs of fictive landscapes that challenge photography’s relationship to an assumed referent.

As the title View Not From a Window suggests, the views in this series bear vicarious associations to traditional artistic concepts of the window: generally, as visual frames for vistas or as illusory extensions of the observable world. Here, the title specifically conjures a historic photograph produced by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, one of the earliest innovators and practitioners of the medium. The earliest known permanent camera photograph, View from the Window at La Gras (1827), a heliograph, records, in grainy resolution, the scene outside Niépce’s second-story workspace, across rooftops, gardens, and trees, into the distant horizon. In Niépce’s photograph, the window supplies both the subject matter and the sunlight necessary to secure the image on a pewter plate coated with light-sensitive bitumen and oil of lavender.[1] As with Niépce’s heliograph, Kelton’s prints are indebted to light as the medium that incites reactions central to the imaging process. Unlike Niépce’s sweeping panorama, however, the works in View Not From a Window reveal nothing of the artist’s surroundings; here the views derive from insistently interior landscapes. By referencing Niépce’s photograph, Kelton allies his work with innovations in the medium. Yet, Kelton’s title simultaneously distances the work from specific locations or events, refusing to anchor these tableaus in the natural world and suggesting, instead, the primacy of inner vision.

Indeed, Kelton’s landscapes, which so evocatively capture scenes of austere stillness or seismic turbulence, are landscapes of the mind that unfold in sequential acts, over weeks or months. The process begins with the act of folding, apportioning the paper into two segments, followed by chemical manipulation of the area beneath the fold. Kelton then sets the work aside to dry and process, before returning to approach the section above the fold. Again, the work is set aside to oxidize. When Kelton later returns to the work, he intuitively works the print, pushing and pulling the image using bleach, developer, and suspensions of gold chloride, selenium, iron, and other metals to achieve desired tonal and chromatic effects. The resulting images merge the artist’s knowledge and expertise in chemical reactions with the inevitability of alchemical chance. Once realized, the potential of the fold to emerge as horizon line, to define the image as a landscape with depth and magnitude and grandeur, in short, to activate the work, comes into focus.

While this single longitudinal mark across the paper confounds the medium’s conventional means of creating illusion, this same rupture of the photosensitive surface possesses a subtle dimensionality that provokes unexpectedly illusory effects. Writing about the capacity for cultivated “flatness” to produce optical illusion in modernist painting, art critic Clement Greenberg remarked, “the first mark made on a canvas destroys its literal and utter flatness, and the result of the marks made on it by an artist…is still a kind of illusion that suggests a kind of third dimension. Only now it is a strictly pictorial, strictly optical third dimension. The…illusion created by the Modernist painter can only be seen into; can be traveled through, literally or figuratively, only with the eye.”[2] Kelton’s fold performs analogously to the modernist painter’s mark. Its subtle impression on the paper’s surface creates an illusion of depth, while its orientation invites one to read it as the horizon of a vast landscape. The eye perceives a horizon and instantly chemically induced whorls, bursts, and gradations metamorphose into distant converges of land and sea, dune and sky. The viewer optically journeys into and through fictive landscapes born not from a window view, but from a gestural performance of chemistry and light, and a predilection for the unheimlich. One’s flicker of recognition is, of course, impossible; these landscapes exist only on the printed page and in the eye and mind of the viewer.

Occupying elusive terrain between representation and abstraction, imagination and perception, the prints of Chuck Kelton’s View Not From a Window offer deeply moving landscapes oriented along a fictive horizon. Along this horizon, a storm surge churns; a waterspout nimbly skirts its way; a column of cloud advances toward a dense canopy. Just above this horizon, a mist settles silently across a mountain range; below, matte oceanic depths calmly lap shoreline; a snowfall’s powdery drifts graze the frozen ground. This is the awe-inspiring view from here.

 

[1] “The Niépce Heliograph,” Harry Ransom Center, accessed May 12, 2021, https://www.hrc.utexas.edu/niepce-heliograph/.

[2] Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism; Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-69 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 90.

 

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