Carol Inez Charney has been making large-format abstract photographs for the last 16 years. She describes the moment when, looking though a window on a rainy day in 2001, she noticed her attention moving back and forth between the water droplets in the foreground and the rest of the world in the background. In that moment, a few very important things happened. First, a completely different image or view began to emerge that was both foreground and background, and was both extremely literal and abstract, with no clear subject but an unmistakable beauty and emotional draw. Second: the shifting focal points made her aware that she was looking, and in so doing raised her level of consciousness (think Buddha, Kant, Existentialism). Finally: she realized that this particularly conscious way of looking was one that she had experienced many times looking at painting, but rarely if ever, while looking at photography. And so began her journey to create photographs that ask to be viewed as one views paintings, and in so doing, to offer beauty, emotion, and consciousness, to the viewer.
To achieve this, Charney has continued to look at the world around her through a filter made from a sheet of glass with transparent liquids on it. Over time she has made changes to what is happening on the glass, experimenting with spray, droplets, and thickeners. These modifications impact the rate of the liquid’s movement, allowing her to play games in the space between her Hasselblad camera’s shutter speed and the speed of the moving liquid. Over time, Charney has also shifted her attention to different background scenes, starting with natural environments, moving to urban street scenes, and then focusing intently on modern and post-modern architecture.
In this latest body of work, Charney has turned instead to old master paintings for her background imagery, re-viewing iconic images such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Matisse’s Goldfish, and Monet’s Water Lilies, among others, through her unique lens. This project is, on the one hand, an open homage to the western history of painting, to its recognized masters, and their influence on Charney as an artist. But it is also a comment on how, in an image-saturated world, our attention spans have been shortened so much that the act of looking has been compressed to mere recognition. Precisely because we have seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa so many times, we tend to simply recognize the image in passing; we don’t really stop and look at it, and we don’t engage and consider it. So Charney brings the painting once more to our attention, re-presenting it and de-contextualizing it, in order to bring our attention back to it and to our attention.
As the diptychs and triptychs in this series show, Charney is continually narrowing her focus, to center on ever smaller passages. Taken out of the context of the larger original work of art, these images become ever more abstract, and the source paintings become increasingly more challenging to recognize. At a certain point, the viewer if forced to give up the game of recognition, because by then the work has become something all of its own, which speaks its own language of abstraction. But by then, hopefully, the viewer is ready for it, because through the process of looking, they have arrived at a new, quieter place, bringing with them a special kind of looking we usually reserve for great painting: one where active visual exploration; emotional response to color, light, and composition; and self-reflection make perfect sense.
Holding a BA in painting from UC Santa Cruz and an MFA in photography from San Jose State University, Carol Inez Charney has exhibited her work in Sweden, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland. Her work is in private and corporate collections throughout the United States, including those of AT&T, Microsoft, and the US Department of State, to name just a few. Her work has been featured in Fahrenheit Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters, and Art Ltd. Originally from New York, she currently lives and works in San Francisco.