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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Caleb Charland: Inquisitive & Blasphemous

Caleb Charland’s physical manifestation of scientific curiosity is made of light and time

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Caleb Charland's photographs—which are in no way the product of digital wizardry and entirely the product of a highly creative brain—are the consequence of a formative period in his life during which he was left unattended in a darkroom for extended periods of time. As a student whose talent was obvious, he was given free rein in his high school's photo lab. This freedom to experiment, to break the rules and ask innumerable "what if" questions, shaped an artist who eventually would create a literally wonderful body of work.

Wonder is the precise name for the sensation Charland wants his viewers to experience. Images such as "Attempting To Paddle Straight at the Moon, 2010" are interesting enough to draw viewers in on their own, but the clues the photographer leaves within the frame and title shore up the wonder-filled experience.

For this image, Charland secured his camera to a canoe and paddled for two hours. The concept is simple and the effect, dramatic; this makes for wonder.

"That was on Hopkins Pond," Charland says, "a pond here in Maine where my folks have a little summer cabin. I spent three or four nights; it was the full moon at the end of June 2010. The first couple of nights, I didn't really know what I was doing; I didn't even know if it was going to work, so I just did laps around the pond. Then the third or fourth night, I was like, oh, what if I make this into this contest with myself and I try to stay in that moonlight path that comes down on the water. So I spent about two hours just trying to slowly keep the canoe going toward the moon. It just seemed like a beautiful gesture."

Charland's works are the products of sublime gestures. He flicked a BIC® some 1,500 times over four hours to create a flaming ball of light ("Light Sphere with My Right Arm and Cigarette Lighter, 2009"), and he's exposed film to fireworks and flames in order to record the result ("Sparkler Held One Inch Over Transfer Paper, 2009"). He even created the cosmos in the palm of his hand with nothing but a pen and a flatbed scanner ("Black Dots on My Palms Anywhere Lines Cross, Scanned and Inverted to Look Like Stars, 2009"). He says all of this work is simply the manifestation of the curiosity that lives in "the wonder gap"—the space between knowledge and uncertainty.

"I think that's the sensation," he says. "You're not quite informed yet, but you're not totally uncertain. You know something is happening, but you haven't defined it yet. I think the image begins in that gap. I've heard wonder described as that state of being. I want to place viewers in that gap; they can travel with me through the making of the image. Maybe the gap is that place between the image plane and the title card, right where the viewer stands in the gallery.

"I obviously want the image to draw them closer to the gallery wall," Charland adds, "but when they get there, hopefully they become kind of a visual detective. In some pieces, I'll try to leave as much of my process in the image as I can and give a little clue with the title. I hope people are intrigued and it gets their mind going. That's why we go look at paintings—to go somewhere else for a little while."

Caleb Charland is in the midst of a meteoric rise as an artist. Speaking with amazement about these sudden successes, he comments, "Sometimes just that it worked is fascinating for me. I mean, I know I did it, but sometimes the natural things that happen are way more intriguing than my hand in it. It's sort of allowing natural tendencies of the world to kind of record themselves in a way, too." Using himself in many images, he says it's performative, not performance. "I wouldn't say I'm a performance artist—that seems like a whole different conversation—but it's performative in that I'm using the body as a machine, or as the mechanism. The photograph is ultimately the end, that is the work, and everything before that is the process to make the work. It's performative, but it's kind of important to delineate that it's not performance art."


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