​Sight Lines

Ryan Fontaine

Full disclosure: my gallery, HAIRandNAILS, at time of writing had six of Sophia Chai’s photos on display in a group show and presented a show of her work, opening March 6th, 2020.

I try not to dwell too much on what specific discipline a work of art should be placed within, especially when it is simply a matter of, for example, sculpture with painterly or photographic elements or painting with strong sculptural elements. In Sophia Chai’s solo exhibition ​Sight Lines at the Rochester Art Center, however, the question of how to categorize these seven paintings/photographs/installations feels like a necessary and important component of the art. I find it oddly disorienting and in a way exhilarating try to put this work in its proper box.

My first read of these elegantly minimalist abstract photographs breaks down more and more as I consider the work. First of all, being somewhat familiar with Chai’s work, I am already aware that the central element of each piece is a photograph. Were I not, the obvious brush strokes on the studio walls that are the subjects of the photos coupled with the very, very matte rag paper the photos are printed on would have me looking closely to determine whether they were screen prints or even very delicate paintings. But I know they are photographs. It takes a moment to let them sink in, to understand them as photographs of paintings with the three dimensional architecture of the studio they were made in as ground. The corners and anomalies of that particular space become more and more apparent. The large scale of the photos at 40”x50” (the same ratio as the 4×5 view camera used to capture these images) help us to feel like the picture plane is a threshold to a place we can enter relative to this outward space that we presently inhabit.

The photographs are mounted on thin sheets of Dibond hung with very low-profile cleats which helps create the perception that the wall and photo are one. The very matte finish of the photos and wall accentuates this effect. I stop thinking of these as photos mounted on unconventional, chromatically subjective surfaces, but rather encounter them as large-scale paintings with photographic components in which the subject is a painting based intervention of another space altogether.

The confounding perspective of these photos unbalances me laterally, while the threshold effect of the picture plane pulls us in and radiates outward, activating the entire gallery space. Further the chromatic charge of the ultra-saturated colors of the photos that is slightly shifted in the color of the walls, vibrates and dazzles. In ​Shaft Composition #5 & #6,​for example, the clash of the slightly more blue-reds of the photo against the slightly more yellow-red of the wall is crazy and powerful. The same move happens in ​Shaft Composition #1 & #7, with the blues. Even with all of this going on, these paintings have an introspective stillness that is almost like a participatory experience. In this way they remind me of the minimalist paintings of Agnes Martin with a subverted grid or maybe Robert Irwin’s contoured dot paintings.

The lighting design is essential with tubes of fluorescents pointed toward the ceiling creating a uniform luminous space warmed up by tungsten spots. This really makes the work pop. The one decision I am confused by was leaving the walls behind ​Shaft Composition #3 & #4 ​untreated. While I think the photos work really well as discreet compositions, it makes the overall exhibition feel incomplete. It feels arbitrary, as though there just wasn’t quite enough time to finish before “opening o’clock”. This omission was likely based on these photos having a lot of white in them, but the whites of the photos and the white of the walls are very different. It makes these two works alone feel clearly like conventional photos which is slightly jarring against the identity crisis of the other five pieces. Perhaps it’s a minor complaint overshadowed by Sophia’s powerful vision and precise execution. Her unique voice is super-fresh with an iconic feel rooted in art history.

On view at the Rochester Art Center thru April 11, 2020