Fascinated by the way light plays off surfaces at night, Paul Chojnowski uses a propane torch to "draw" atmospheric images onto paper and wood.
The exhibition Night/Light, at James Gallery, gathers work from two series that Chojnowski calls "Nocturnes and Narratives." Chojnowski has been making his Nocturnes for two decades. Initially an abstract painter, the Massachusetts-based artist later chose to work with more recognizable imagery. His Nocturnes replicate the glowing windows, car headlights and neon found on city streets. But rather than exercises in realism, they are studies in light. They evoke a mood, memory or fleeting moment.
Chojnowski's burned drawings evolved from his interest in the nocturnes of artists such as James McNeill Whistler. They are inspired by the energy of cities like New York, Boston and Pittsburgh at night. In gallery wall-text, Chojnowski explains that as a pedestrian walking after dark in the light-filled city streets, he is "aware of being surrounded by the rich array of sounds." It's actually hard to look at the exhibition without thinking about how Hurricane Sandy plunged lower Manhattan into darkness. But the images do not evoke any one particular city.
While many of the nocturnes are at street level, some, like "Dusk From the Balcony" or "Rooftops Looking East," are views looking down or across the city. The images clearly depict busy streets with cars and buildings. But some, like "City Lights XXVII," contain shapes that are barely perceptible, leaving them a shimmery dance of light and shadow.
Most of Chojnowski's Nocturnes are of smaller scale, and many show the burned edges that unintentionally result from his use of fire. Howard Libov's short documentary titled "Aglow" (available online) shows how the artist actually begins his drawing by establishing a meticulous grid and underlying sketches. But while he has learned to control this unpredictable medium to some extent, it is never exact.
The few Narratives included in Night/Light, though larger and more realistic than the Nocturnes, are also studies in light. In "Aglow," Chojnowski explains that his narratives are more personal, more photographic and yet dreamlike. "Search Lights" and "Evening of the Deluge" both show men in work clothes carrying lanterns as they search for someone or something unknown.
Whatever his subject, the ethereal glow that Chojnowski coaxes from fire and water is the main event.
Nadine Wasserman, Pittsburgh City Paper, January 2, 2013
Fire and water don't mix, but in the hands of artist Paul Chojnowski, these elements can make amazing imagery.
With soft hues of sepia and blackened ash, the 15 self-described “fire drawings” on display in Chojnowski's solo show, “NIGHT/LIGHT,” at James Gallery, seem to flicker as if still on fire.
That's not surprising, considering they were made with a blowtorch.
Mostly nighttime city scenes, all of which the artist calls “nocturnes” after the nocturnally themed paintings of 19th-century American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the works on paper in the exhibit offer “fleeting glances” that we all are familiar with, even though each particular scene is not of a specific place.
“It's like that moment when you are in a crosswalk, and this is what you see out of the corner of your eye,” Chojnowski says of his nocturnes. “It's not meant to be some careful rendering of the scene. It's more meant to be an impression.”
For Chojnowski, a fleeting glance is really what the work is about. “If you think about this, and approach (the work) with a formal sensibility, it's very simple. There are some mid-tones, some darks and some highlights. It's very simplistic in its construction, but because it's complicated enough, our Western eye creates the sense of space.”
That's especially true in works like “City Below,” “From the Rooftop,” and “Rooftop Looking East.” All evoke a sense of wide, sweeping urban spaces, something Chojnowski calls “the canyons of the city.”
Amazingly, as realistic as they seem, none of these works depict a specific city or realistic view. “None of these are that specific,” Chojnowski says, even though he does rely on photographs he has taken in cities around the country for reference.
“There's a lot of these that are literally improvised,” he says. “I'll start with a couple of different reference photos, and maybe a line of cars are from one reference photo, and the background is comprised of canyons of buildings that I've been looking at for years. At that point, it becomes more about the mark-making. You get to a point where you have some sense that you can take some liberty with the original photograph.”
In the early 1990s, when he was creating large, geometrically inspired abstract pieces on wood panels with wax and raw pigments, he found he could burn marks into the surface of the wood using torches. Deciding to abandon abstraction altogether, Chojnowski began burning and scorching wood and paper to create his images.
“From that point on, I went out and researched every sort of blow torch I could get my hands on, which at the time was somewhat limited,” he says. “But here it is, some 20 years later, and I now have blowtorches like a jeweler's blowtorch, which gives you a pencil point size flame, right on up to a roofer's blowtorch, which gives you a flame about the size of your hand, and every blowtorch in between.” As for the process of creating the works, “I've been sort of refining it and experimenting with it ever since,” Chojnowski says.
He first showed the fire drawings in Atlanta in 1993. Back then, Chojnowski says, “I was very influenced by mid-20th-century photography. Early on in my career, they were mistaken for photographs,” he says of his work. “But I just had to point out to people that if you look really carefully, it is indeed a drawing.”
Even though he calls them drawings, very few of the pieces contain a pencil line. “Most of the nocturnes, believe it or not, are done by strategically placing water on paper,” he says. In some of the works, like “Dusk From the Balcony,” it appears as if windows have been drawn on the buildings. “These lines are not drawn,” Chojnowski says. “They are actually created during the process when the paper is rapidly going from wet to dry. The process creates these tidal lines, which are essentially microscopic, dried charred fibers at the edges.” As for the overall sepia tone to the works, “This is just the natural color that that paper scorches,” Chojnowski says.
Two larger works on display — “Search Lights” and “Evening of the Deluge” — are fire drawings on Baltic Birch plywood. More narrative in scope, they depict ambiguous male figures holding lanterns, as if searching for something in the dark. Not specific about their intent, Chojnowski says, “I like the viewer to bring their own story to it.”
Even though, Chojnowski says, the treatment of the figures in these works “border on hyper-realism. If you look carefully, you'll realize they're not that prcise,” he says. They were, after all, created with fire. “It's still a volatile enough process where things can still go wrong, but after 20 years I do have more control.”
Kurt Shaw, The Pittsburgh Tribune, December 15, 2012
Paul Chojnowski draws with a small torch. He uses water droppers to wet paper or wood, soaking it here or just moistening it there. Then he makes images with his torch. The least wet areas char to black; the soaked parts remain pale. His work is upat Kidder Smith Gallery. Technically, they're impressive. Chojnowski can delineate buttons on a shirt with a torch; the detail work alone is smart. The haunting "After the Deluge," burned onto maple,shows a man at night, standing thigh-high in floodwaters behind a boat. He holds up lantern, eerily illuminating a road sign and the ripples of water, which dance with the wood's grain. Pieces such as this, which feature alone figure, read like brief short stories, filled with portent. Who is this man? What is he feeling? Several other works focus on weather and its exaggerations of darkness and light. "Escape" puts us behind the wheel, looking through the windshield at a slick road with ambulances coming our way. In the rearview mirror, we see the reflection of a tornado touching down. These weather works are well made, but they tell predictable tales.
Cate McQuaid, The Boston Globe, August 9, 2007
Distant unpopulated vistas abound in this show. Perhaps one of the most ingeniously deceptive and exquisitely crafted is by Paul Chojnowski. At first glance, Nocturne: Midtown appears to be an out of focus sepia-toned photograph of a city at night. But each of its dark tones is burned through the paper; the bright lights in the building windows are simply the natural white of the paper. The range of color, like a fine photo or good print, is exquisite, as is the delicate texture and haziness. This work is just plain gorgeous and cleverly fabricated.
Rachel Koper, The Austin Chronicle, July 1, 2005
Chojnowski's medium precludes setting an easel and working in the fields: he photographs for reference, then goes back to the studio to burn his images into wet paper with a blowtorch. The elegant night city scenes that dominate this collection all meditate on variations of the same composition, looking up the center of an alley of buildings, out of which a set of two of headlights shine bright paths down the paper to the viewer' eye...
Sophie Felf, The New Yorker, October 1, 2001
One of the most unusual pieces here is Paul Chojnowski's alter likewall piece, River of Blood / Bridge of Hope which also hints at a political theme. This large image of an old fashioned steel support bridge has been burned onto adjoining wood panels whose shape resemblesa triple arched window like those that line the walls of some churches.The bridges central segment is missing and this renders it ineffectiveas a means of crossing the wide river below it. For this reason it seems to function not as an emblem of hope, but rather its absence. Attached to the wood surface are six sconces that hold lighted votive candles, and outlined against the dark area above each of them is a shape that looks like a country, state or other bordered region on a map. It is astriking piece and visually it's one of the exhibit's highlights.
Tom Patterson, Winston-Salem Journal, March 23, 1997
Mark Price, ART papers, August, 1996
Paul Chojnowski's small dark figure studies have the dark palette of certain Old Master paintings.... he has an eye for the details of the human figure, and the outcome of that is a body of work that is much more than simply brooding. The quite drama of these pieces, which explore psychological states through symbolically loaded motifs, makes this exhibit well worth a visit....
Jerry Cullum, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, November 5, 1993