Outside In: Chris Engman’s Prospect and Refuge at the Weston

October 8th, 2018  |  Published in *, September 2018

Chris Engman’s Prospect and Refuge teaches us not to trust our eyes. On display at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery through November 18, the exhibit unsettles our senses of depth and scale, interior and exterior, origin and reproduction. It ushers us into artificial spaces and then immerses us in the tropes of nature. Engman achieves his uncanny effects mainly by taking enormous, high-density photographs and then affixing them to walls, ceilings, floors, and objects in domestic rooms and workspaces, sometimes doubling the perceived size of those spaces, other times making them appear to go on forever. Engman reveres the organic world while at the same time resisting idioms of purity and wildness, insinuating that vision adheres to conventional behaviors and perceptual expectations rather than some absolute presence that discloses itself to the viewer. He troubles those conventions by refusing to let them hide, but he never imagines that highlighting them means canceling their power. That power depends on a dialectical movement between materiality and illusion, which Engman ties firmly to the governing concepts of the show: “Materiality, like refuge, refers to what is here and now, what is in front of us, what we can see and touch. Illusion, like prospect, refers to what we would prefer to believe, or, to put it more positively, what we can imagine. Neither, without the other, is quite satisfactory.” As the various entries in the exhibit fuse banal living areas with dream-like projections, blending attention to the tactile substance of photography with evocations of complex affect, they probe the bond between established custom and desire.

“Containment”, 2018

On entering the Weston gallery, we move immediately into an atmosphere of sly contradiction. Part mural and part playroom, the foyer installation pulls us into a simulation of outdoor wonder while calling itself Containment. Working on one level as a towering instance of composite still photography, it also connotes adventurous movement from an urban ecosystem into flourishing green space, an immersive funnel so rich with detail that we might expect to take in the accompanying sounds and smells of the forest. And yet the clearly constructed character of the enclosure, with its wooden beams peaking through, its accordion-like walls and framed doorways, and its anamorphic visuals that distort at close range, gives the structure an ethos of deliberate self-sabotage. It tends toward the hyperreality of Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard only to subvert that tendency by emphasizing the media and techniques that produce the illusion. The strategy works its way up the creek and through the woods, beyond the rear exits to a place where the photo-strips no longer hold together, becoming regularly spaced stripes on the polished floor, the unkempt and the crafted working in rhythmic counterpoint.

“Equivalence”, 2017

That interplay continues on the lower level of the Weston gallery, where we find a chamber filled with photographs of other site-specific installations. We no longer have the experience of walking through the prepared space, but the wall hangings are at least as striking for the way they fool the self-assured gaze. Among the more texturally sophisticated of the photographs is Engman’s Equivalence, which represents a room repurposed as a cloud formation. The image features not so much an interior situated in the heavens as a space that operates in cloud-like ways, holding its position or shape temporarily before beginning to transform, inviting an awareness of dissipation and change despite the putative stillness of the medium. The desk and chair are ghosts of themselves, wispy tissues dissolving into the shadows of the floor. Those shadows cannot decide whether they are cast upon the installation or etched into its surfaces. The image plane comes to us replete with frames whose primary feature is not their boundaries but their permeability. Open windows punctuate the metaleptic character of the photograph, suggesting a sky opening onto sky.

While Engman’s 2016 work Prospect includes firmer borders between the realms of routine and fantasy, it resembles Equivalence in the way his giant photo destabilizes states of matter in the room. Whereas things turn to gas in one installation, they liquefy in the other. The watery paradise that occupies a corner of Prospect contrasts the prosaic territory of the garage or studio, while at the same time converting that enclosure into a microcosm of imaginative release. That microcosm brings at least three different expressions of distance into conversation: first, the span from the concrete foreground to the corner of the room; second, the distance to the tall, translucent photograph hovering like a scrim over that corner, foreshortening the available floor space and projecting the ocean scene onto everything behind; last, the range of the ocean, extending to the point where vision gives out. As these expressions of scale tend to contradict or absorb each other, we can more readily perceive them discretely than all at once. Achieving those effects requires a thoroughgoing patience on the part of the artist, as well as the calculation of a skilled engineer. Engman’s work always announces its painstaking character, but the wrapping of paint cans and ladders with photo-paper suggests especially delicate and time-intensive labor.

“Prospect”, 2016

Such attention to detail permits the works to trick the eye on initial encounter, and to go on tricking it even after steady meditation. We may begin to recognize the mechanics of the illusion, but it nevertheless remains difficult to convince vision that it has been deceived. With the 2015 piece Landscape for Candace, for example, a high-resolution rendering of a tree growing in the middle of a room triggers our sense of reality no matter how nonsensical the picture seems. We notice shreds of photo-paper hanging from the ceiling, as well as rough seams connecting varied sections of the picture, but the image as a whole adamantly conveys a tree flourishing in confined space. An electrical outlet superimposed on a limb may disturb the illusion, but only for a moment. A cord loops across the floor almost without interruption into a space that is not there. Sawhorses and two-by-fours also jut into that non-portal, conveying the barest of breaks where the two worlds meet. We might wonder for an instant whether Engman uses a large mirror to double the apparent size of the room, but the reflections and the necessary symmetry are missing. Things exist in front of the tree but not behind it (and vice versa). Beginning to decode the sleight-of-hand gives us better purchase on the artist’s composing techniques and high-concept aesthetics, but it only goes so far toward dispelling the sense of a living thing rising before the camera.

“Landscape for Candace”, 2015

Once we witness that vibrant, three-dimensional thing squeeze into strips of photo-paper that droop from the ceiling, we may hesitate to accept the depth conventions of other Engman pictures. Those suspicions create an especially forceful kind of cognitive dissonance when we encounter the 2016 piece Shelter, which turns the artist’s technique inside out. Where much of his work brings outdoor settings into enclosed dwellings, Shelter brings domestic trappings into the forest. A ceiling light hangs in a mossy copse, creating a small chamber with an overgrown floor and tree-lined boundaries. Extension cords rise up from the foliage, punctuating the design of the installation much like the sutures and wooden beams of other works. We may nevertheless be tempted to look for photographs within the photograph, for evidence that the scene has been pasted onto a wall or some otherwise nondescript corner. From certain angles, the glossy surface of the mounted image reflects the gallery space itself, absorbing murky versions of Engman’s other pictures into the forest setting, almost fulfilling our expectation of the scene as a prepared interior. But those reflections dissipate as we close in on the image, convincing ourselves, at least for the moment, that it inverts rather than replicates the show’s aesthetic pattern.

“Shelter”, 2016

This inversion exemplifies Engman’s tendency to dislocate the world before the camera while loosening the link between seeing and knowing. The leakiness of borders, the constant confusion of inside and outside, the melding of ostensibly distinct bodies, the tempo of entry and regress—all give the exhibit an almost erotic charge. The show toys with desire by deferring gratification, gradually yielding splendid if temporary moments of satisfaction. Although the installations and their portraits contain no people, Prospect and Refuge produces a distinctive kind of social energy on the gallery floor, with viewers debating a single piece’s significance to the show while simultaneously questioning the difference between reality and representation, truth and its mediation. Such exchanges, especially when they examine the durability of impressions and the nature of certainty, do great credit to Engman’s artwork. We may find ourselves drawn to those conversations, to the prospect of impromptu philosophical inquiry with strangers, only to have another visual detail arrest our attention, pulling us back into the dialectic of materiality and illusion. Perhaps that detail is the mysterious flattening of a right angle, or the heavy branch that seems, if we look closely enough, to be disguised lighting equipment. Or maybe the magnetic detail is the smooth plane-within-a-plane that insists, against all reason, on being the weft of a thicket.

–Christopher Carter

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