John Chervin­sky,

Pasatiempo - - ACTS RAN­DOM -

great op­por­tu­nity to take work I’d com­pleted a while ago and put it in a dif­fer­ent form. The goal now is to make a trade edi­tion.”

Chervin­sky’s en­er­getic, mixed-me­dia still lifes in­volve cre­ative as­sem­blages of both found and con­structed ob­jects, of­ten with drawn el­e­ments. In The Anal­y­sis, he poses chalky, white grids above and be­low a white lily held in the clamp of an an­tique chem-lab stand. Such con­trap­tions have en­tered his vis­ual vo­cab­u­lary through a ca­reer as an en­gi­neer work­ing in ap­plied physics. He has been at Har­vard Univer­sity for 28 years and is cur­rently with Har­vard’s Row­land In­sti­tute. For 18 years, he worked with a par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor — one of his tasks was an­a­lyz­ing art for mu­se­ums.

“The ac­cel­er­a­tor I ran was in our ma­te­rial-sci­ence de­part­ment, mostly for el­e­men­tal anal­y­sis us­ing the Ruther­ford backscat­ter­ing tech­nique. You ac­cel­er­ate ions and hit a sam­ple, and the ions backscat­ter into a de­tec­tor, and by look­ing at the en­ergy you can tell what atoms they hit. So if you have some kind of sam­ple, you can tell the pro­por­tion of el­e­ments and the thick­ness of var­i­ous lay­ers. In art anal­y­sis, you could hit a paint­ing and tell what el­e­ments are in the pig­ments, for ex­am­ple. That was a very re­ward­ing part of my ca­reer, and it was one of the things that got me in­ter­ested in work­ing with art.”

Chervin­sky was fa­mil­iar with pho­tog­ra­phy from an early age. His fa­ther, a fac­tory worker in Ni­a­gara Falls, was an am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher. Chervin­sky has a shoe­box full of his neg­a­tives go­ing back to the 1930s. “A long time ago he gave me a 35mm Ko­dak Retina cam­era, and I moved up the for­mat chain pretty quickly,” he said, re­fer­ring to larger cam­eras that use larger film and yield sharper im­ages. “The [medium for­mat] Mi­nolta Au­to­cord twin-lens re­flex re­ally started me on a more se­ri­ous path, then all of the work you see on my web­site was done with a 4 x 5 view cam­era.”

He has done his own dark­room work for many years, but for one body of work, the col­or­ful and cryp­tic Stu­dio Physics se­ries, he also in­cor­po­rated an el­e­ment added by peo­ple on the other side of the world. “Most of us pho­tog­ra­phers have our cam­eras set up to shoot at a cer­tain in­ter­val, usu­ally from 1/1000th of a sec­ond to 20 or 30 sec­onds. I started think­ing about some­one like Chris McCaw, whose

im­ages take place over the pe­riod of an en­tire day, and I thought about ex­tend­ing the im­age-cap­ture pe­riod over weeks.

“So what I do is set up a still life and I shoot it and I take a cropped sec­tion of that and make a dig­i­tal im­age of it. Then I send it to China. Then the peo­ple in China send back the paint­ing, and I rein­sert it into the still life and repho­to­graph it. I be­came aware of these paint­ing fac­to­ries that have been go­ing on for hun­dreds of years there, so I thought it might be a cool idea if I could some­how con­nect with that, be­cause I’m shoot­ing ob­jects that have a par­tic­u­lar arc in time, like ba­nanas, that will change over weeks.”

The pho­to­graphs in An Ex­per­i­ment in Per­spec­tive were made with Po­laroid Type 55 black-and-white film. Chervin­sky has stock­piled a sup­ply of Type 55, which has not been man­u­fac­tured for seven years. It is a trea­sured ma­te­rial among fine-art pho­tog­ra­phers be­cause it pro­duces an in­stant pos­i­tive print as well as a high-qual­ity neg­a­tive for print­ing or scan­ning.

He com­poses his tableaux in his at­tic stu­dio. His light source for An Ex­per­i­ment in Per­spec­tive was a win­dow, plus some sub­tle en­hance­ments di­rected to­ward the sub­ject by light-re­flect­ing pan­els. Through­out the se­ries, his back­grounds are con­sis­tent: a ver­ti­cal black­board and a hor­i­zon­tal black­board, the junc­ture of the two pro­vid­ing a hori­zon line that is usu­ally placed on the lower half of the im­age. “A cam­era has a sin­gle point of per­spec­tive, and I was think­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously about hu­man knowl­edge and hu­man per­spec­tive, so I was ba­si­cally try­ing to con­nect those two items in the project.”

In his artist state­ment about the se­ries (which first opened in 2005 at the Grif­fin Mu­seum of Pho­tog­ra­phy, in Winch­ester, Mas­sachusetts), he says the im­ages are not in­tended to be sci­en­tif­i­cally fac­tual, nor to be in­struc­tional. He sees them sim­ply as “pos­ing ques­tions with­out easy an­swers.”

Many of the works in­cor­po­rate par­tial eras­ings of chalk-drawn lines and for­mu­lae. “Well, you know, a lot of these im­ages end up be­ing per­sonal con­ver­sa­tions about cer­tain things. And it’s not to say that I’m try­ing to ex­press the con­ver­sa­tion such that I want the viewer to know what I was think­ing when I made them, but there are a lot of re­vi­sions, and they deal with philo­soph­i­cal is­sues. It’s just things that I think about: Maybe life is this way, or maybe it’s this other way.”

One photo from the se­ries that is not in­cluded in the Photo-eye show is Me­an­der . It is unique in that it has a thick bor­der in sort of an Aztec pat­tern and im­agery that is per­haps more ob­vi­ously sym­bol­i­cally loaded than in his other pho­tos. A black widow dan­gles over a pic­ture of Je­sus Christ — who ap­pears to be look­ing up at it ap­pre­hen­sively — and a chalk­drawn tick-tack-toe graphic. “The un­fin­ished game, the un­winnable game of tick-tack-toe,” Chervin­sky said. “This is not one of my fa­vorites. It was a few years af­ter the bomb­ing of the World Trade Cen­ter, and I was think­ing about re­li­gion’s role in so­ci­ety and whether it’s more trou­ble than it’s worth — and do we have re­li­gion be­cause we’re ba­si­cally afraid of na­ture?

“But I don’t want my im­ages to pro­voke peo­ple. I don’t want them to know my pol­i­tics, be­cause that wrecks it for me. I don’t want them to de­code my thoughts but to have as­so­ci­a­tions of their own, to use their imag­i­na­tions in the same way that I did when I made the im­ages. Be­cause, let’s face it, the im­ages are very am­bigu­ous. They don’t deal with heavy-handed metaphors.”

Like Me­an­der (with its spi­der, Je­sus, and tick­tack-toe graphic), En­tropy is an­other piece (this one is in the show) that di­vides its sub­ject into three. It’s a par­tially erased for­mula, a drawn rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an earth­like orb ro­tat­ing on a dot­ted-line axis, and a de­light­ful jum­ble of gears — a de­pic­tion that re­calls the neigh­bor­ing do­mains of sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing.”I started out in 1987, and we were mak­ing me­chan­i­cal draw­ings on graph pa­per. We’d have these ex­per­i­ments we’d have to run, or we’d have to build de­vices for grad­u­ate stu­dents. It’s ap­plied physics, so I would have to come up with some kind of ap­pa­ra­tus for our ma­chine shop to build.

“All these sci­en­tists would sit around ta­bles at lunch, and they would make these draw­ings and say, ‘Like, could we could do this ex­per­i­ment?’ They were these won­der­ful lit­tle sketches. They look like art to me. So to be able to take those and use them as mo­tifs in art was re­ally sat­is­fy­ing to me.”

The Anal­y­sis , 2005; op­po­site page, from left, De­sign , 2003; En­tropy , 2003

All im­ages archival pig­ment inkprint

Work , 2004; right, Ab­stract Im­plo­sion­ism , 2007

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