Chris Engman’s haunting photographs present the viewer with a conundrum: either the artist has created his effects through nifty digital sleight of hand, or he must have gone to extraordinary effort to craft his uncanny overlays in three dimensions, then used his camera to document them. The fact that it’s the latter (with a hint of digital finessing) only attests to the artist’s commitment to his vision, and the lengths he is willing to travel to pursue his investigation into the nature of photography, illusion, and the construction of pictorial space. At once disorienting and precise, his interior/exterior landscapes blend a surrealist’s sense of mischief with an anthropologist’s rigor and the curiosity of a philosopher. Visually immersive, they’re also flat out amazing.
Titled “Prospect and Refuge,” the show draws inspiration from the theories of British writer Jay Appleton, who posits that two of humanity’s most basic needs are for opportunity and shelter. Engman uses this dichotomy as a central element in his images, along with a dialogue between nature and architecture, between organic and geometric form. In some works, he brings the inside outside, constructing fragmentary hints of shelter in the midst of a field or wilderness. In the show’s most striking works, Engman brings the outside inside, recreating photographs he shot outdoors, assembling them as elaborate two-dimensional constructions in various interior spaces, along the walls and floors and ceilings, which snap into proper perspective when shot from a single, preset viewpoint. At first glance, these overlays seem almost seamless; but the artist always leaves numerous hints in his images attesting their artificiality.
In Containment (2015), Engman reconstructs a canyon in Zion National Park in Utah, from a set of photos taken during a hike through the narrows carved out by the Virgin River. The diagonal lines of fluorescent lights above and a small square window to the right are the biggest clues that what appears to be the flow of a river through the looming walls of canyon is in fact a recreation, built on more than 200 surfaces in his studio. In Prospect (2016), we see what appears to be a rectangular image of an ocean vista superimposed on the space of his studio, with the white border around it trumpeting the exactitude of the overlay. In Refuge (2016), he brings a forest indoors; in Landscape for Candace (2015), a single tree. The results are part puzzle, part poetry. More than mere trickery, they are profound studies on the nature of the self in the world, and the world in the self.