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Photographer's Showcase: John Chervinsky -- Studio Physics

Apples, Painting on Door -- John Chervinsky
We are pleased to announce the opening of Studio Physics, a new portfolio by Photographer's Showcase artist John Chervinsky.

Building on the visual poetics of observation expressed in his previous series, Chervinsky's portfolio Studio Physics seeks to find a way to capture a duration of time in a photograph, stretching the interval of image capture from mere seconds to weeks. Chervinsky has done so by engaging in a clever collaboration of sorts; setting up a still life, he shoots a photograph, crops a portion of it and sends the detail to a painting factory in China. Over the course of several weeks, an artist on the other side of the world produces the painting and the artwork is shipped back to the United States. In the meantime, Chervinky's still life has sat and aged, an amount of time elegantly expressed when the painting is then placed again into the still life and rephotographed.

Chervinsky's images subvert the very nature of a photograph by managing to depict not a single instant, but the passage of time, manifested dramatically through decay of fruit, or more subtlety through the changing positions of shadows. Like Chervinsky's other work, the images manage to be both fun and thoughtful, and expertly composed.

We asked Chervinsky a few questions about the relationship between his life as a scientist and his artistic practice, and his newest series Studio Physics. -- Sarah Bradley
photo-eye:     You are a self-taught photographer, but also an engineer working in applied physics at Harvard. What got you started making photographs? Has it been a life-long interest or was it something that you came to later?

John Chervinsky:     In 1984 at the age of 22, I moved to Boston. Without any previous knowledge or instruction in art, I got the idea that I should learn how to paint. I taught myself some basic drawing skills and began painting images of photos from magazines and album covers. Eventually, I wanted to paint from photographs of my own making and took up photography. From there I moved up the format chain and learned darkroom technique. Since then, I have pursued a variety of interests within photography.

Abstract Implosionism, 2007, from An Experiment in Perspective -- John Chervinsky
PE:     To an outsider your two careers may seem disparate, but your photographic work is firmly planted at the intersection of art and science. How do your two careers inform each other?

JC:     The reasons for making art and doing scientific research are very different, but especially in the applied sciences, their means of production, are remarkably similar. At the Rowland Institute, where I work, we have wood and metal working shops, darkrooms, an excellent electronics shop, high-speed cameras, wet chemistry labs and very fast computers. Aside from some very specialized scientific equipment that we also have, I don’t expect a well-equipped art school studio, to be too different.

PE:     Do you find artistic inspiration in your scientific work?

More accurately, I’m inspired by the work of the people around me. It has been one of my life’s greatest pleasures to work with very smart, creative and driven scientists and engineers. They might not ever admit it, but I see deep artistic sensibilities in some of them.

The Gravity of Mars, 2005 from An Experiment in Perspective & Bananas in Bowl with Painting on Table, 2010 from Studio Physics -- John Chervinsky
PE:     In both of the series on the Photographer's Showcase, An Experiment in Perspective and Studio Physics, the images feature tightly constructed scenes, incorporating both three-dimensional elements and graphic representations, be they chalkboard drawings or paintings. What is your process for composing your photographic images? Do you produce sketches before hand or do the ideas work themselves out in the studio?

JC:     I certainly allow for some of it to be worked out in the studio. However, as you allude to the difficulties of incorporating a 2D chalk sketch or painting into a 3D scene, they do have to be planned ahead of time. I’ve come up with tricks to make life easier. For example, a view camera can function as a projector when you shine a light on the ground glass. One can draw directly on it and project that image into a 3D space.

PE:     Your work focuses on elements of perception that are clearly evident in our experience of the world, yet can be difficult to understand. What attracted you to these subjects for exploration in photography and do you feel that photography well suited for communicating elements of these abstract ideas?

JC:     We rely so much on our perceptions and intuition just to get on in the world and yet those very perceptions can thoroughly deceive us. Our intuition tells us that the world is flat. I try to get the viewer to think, not only about their physical place in the universe, but by extension, to reconsider any deeply held point of view. I like to throw the viewer a curve, by presenting images that seem to simultainiously inform and deceive. I guess a camera is a perfect tool for that, as photography has a long history of informing or deceiving. Perhaps I am capitalizing on the camera’s inherent weakness: that it can only consider one point of view at a time.

Hourglass, Painting on Door, 2012 from Studio Physics -- John Chervinsky
PE:     Your new series, Studio Physics, feature paintings produced in Chinese painting factories, places where an anonymous artist reproduces a photograph or other work of art commissioned by the buyer. The time it takes to receive the painting is a cornerstone of the conceptual element behind this series, but you have also mentioned that this work is in essence collaboration. What drew you to using these painting factories for your project?

JC:     The circumference of our planet is 25,000 miles. The factory that I use to make the paintings is located in the Fujian province in China, which is located, 11,700 miles from my studio in Somerville, MA. I was drawn to the fact that they are quite literally, half way around the world from me.

The time it takes to make and receive the painting, is a conceptual cornerstone, but so is the painting’s physicality. For example, I do think about the fact that its original digitized form might take a few tens of milliseconds to arrive from my computer to a computer screen in China, but the painting has to pass from human hand to human hand until it arrives on my doorstep some weeks later. Yet, the painting itself is a mere facsimile, of the slice of time, of my very real tabletop setup in my studio. This may seem to be an inconsequential point, but more and more as we inhabit our own virtual worlds, we may need to reconsider what is real and what is not. Hey, look at me! I am hanging out on Facebook with 500 of my best friends! No, I just wasted an hour, alone in the dark, at the computer - when I should have been outside, playing with the dog. Even an excellent mathematical model that correctly predicts physical phenomena is only a model. If humanity goes away, so does our science - but the universe will endure.

PE:     Do you have plans to extend the collaboration and further integrate the conceptual implications of how these paintings were made into the work?

JC:     Only as much as I do want to know the end of the story: What will happen when they see what I’m doing? What are their work conditions and lives like? What do they think when they make my poorly composed cropped images?

For certain, there are interesting cultural, economic and human rights issues associated with China, that are worthy of artistic expression; however, any well-read person will already be thinking about them. My overreaching ambition is to eventually take principles relating to time and space expressed in the history of art, but get people to think of timescales that extend beyond a single human life and extend that, to the age of humanity, the age of life, and the age of the universe itself.

Coffeecups and Painting on Door, 2011 from Studio Physics -- John Chervinsky
A selection of John Chervinsky's work is currently at exhibit at Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque. See Chervinsky's work on the Photographer's Showcase here.

For more information on John Chervinsky's photographs, please contact Anne Kelly at photo-eye Gallery by email or by calling (505) 988-5152 x202