Pointing her handheld medium-format cameras skyward to study foliage and the patches of sky that accompany it, Chiles investigated formal and medium-specific aspects of photography. She tested compositional strategies and film’s ability to produce both realism and abstraction. In Theatre’s images, many of which contain open areas ringed by branches, Chiles aimed to “create darkened spaces where light could play itself out as in a movie.”(1) The series references the proscenium staging of cinemas, arenas in which photography may be at its most seductive, as well as the act of making art as performance. Images in Theatre fall at different points along the spectrum between fact and fiction. Some highlight the intricate detail of branches and the glowing translucency of leaves. Others reference the wild and dynamic “all over” compositions of Abstract Expressionist “action painters” like Jackson Pollock.
The fact that her camera occasionally leaked light to create marks in her negatives appealed to Chiles. In its internal mechanical world, her camera recreated the mercurial luminous effects produced by trees in the real world. “Spirit photography,” the study of these mysterious traces as signs from supernatural realms, was one of the medium’s earliest genres, and Chiles, too, is fascinated by the symbolic and spiritual implications of her images
The German language has a word for the seemingly universal appeal of woods, Waldgefuhl, or “forest feeling,” which suggests sources of origin and power. Working under tall trees, Chiles also felt a reassuring sense of belonging to a grand ecology. Like people, trees have seasons and must endure summers and winters. And the experience of sitting in their shade and looking for answers to life’s questions is ancient. The screened view of the heavens glimpsed through overhead foliage can suggest Plato’s cave and Nietzsche’s metaphysics: profound truths are revealed only in brief flashes. For Chiles, Theater represents a personal cosmology, or way of understanding the world, and her swirling salon-style installation of the photographs highlights this universality.
-Toby Kamps, Curator, The Menil Collection
image: ‘Theatre’ at the Austin Museum of Art