An exhibit of the work of Andrew Sovjani is currently on view at Calloway Fine Art in Georgetown and online. While basically photographic, this work is exceptional in many ways. Sovjani is a magician, using his knowledge of physics and chemistry to create unique manipulated prints that incorporate painting and performative practices in their production. The results are both aesthetically remarkable and visually compelling.
The portfolios represented in the exhibit date from over a fairly long period of time; from 2006 to the present. Interestingly, work from any one series can date from any year in that span as the artist has a kind of cyclical working process, moving from his digital prints of cut paper, to landscape views that he has manipulated, to a series using old books—one with them whitewashed and arranged in subtle ways, and another—probably the most fascinating—which goes under the name OFF THE SHELF.
In the artist’s own words: “OFF THE SHELF is an investigation into books and vintage media as physical objects, design elements, and compact travel vessels.” Sovjani is interested in “things that are disappearing”; for example, the discarded, once beautiful leather-bound volumes of an old library. These he arranges, often in gravity defying ways, for the original photograph. This will then go through a process that is essentially a performance taking place over a period of days. The resulting prints can be seen to be a record of that process, in much the same way that we often think of the expressionist gesture resulting in a work that traces the time of its making. Using two as examples, and not giving away any trade secrets (Sovjani holds his mysterious methods very closely to the vest), I will try to explicate what they represent in terms of technique.
An early example, Discovery 6, shows two old French books, one a translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the other plays by Maurice Maeterlinck, along with a heavy volume titled A Book of Discovery (hence the title). The books were the subject of the original black and white silver gelatin print. The photograph was then subjected to at least 4 – 5 days of alteration with bleaches and other chemical mixes, some of them invented by the artist. The surface of the image is smooth, but it is actually made up of numerous layers and the product of a number of earlier states. The color and the lines are added chemically, and the image of the nautilus shell floats over the books—a reference perhaps to the sea and voyages of discovery. The choice of books, their arrangement and other content added to these images are not random but aimed at provoking a narrative in the mind of the viewer that can change over time. One might think of photomontage when looking at these works, but in actuality they are not that since the artist is not combining negatives although he is working in the darkroom setting to create them.
While the prints can be seen online, they really have to be seen in person to appreciate the sense of space and the delineation of images within that space. This was really evident for me in a work of a decade later in the same series, Just One More On Top, from 2016.
This is a larger format work in an unusual vertical orientation. We see a pile of old books, some with pages turned toward the viewer, others with their spines forward, making what looks like an impossibly unstable pile. The artist’s hand comes in from the right to add one more, which, one fears, might bring the whole stack tumbling down. What really can’t be appreciated online is the sense of looming space and the distinct edges of the books that seem to move forward toward the viewer, while the table behaves much like the tables in late Cézanne still life paintings, tilting up in an unexpected way. This too is an illusion produced by the chemical manipulation to which the original photograph of the books was subjected. The woodgrain background was achieved by pressing a piece of plywood onto one of the layered states, and the table was completely chemically added to the image, as well as the outline around the top book that goes over the moving hand and the brushed in shadow of that movement behind it. Sovjani uses the chemicals like paints, and the process, as it takes days to accomplish, is a slow performance the outcome of which is always improvised.
The painterly quality of the manipulated prints is perhaps more evident in some of the landscape views of old, abandoned structures taken in various places around the country, including New England where Sovjani is based. Two excellent examples from the series called WANDERINGS, Northfield (2010) and Cades Cove (2012), illustrate this quite clearly.
In Northfield we see a wooden house set in an otherwise empty field. Sparse trees are on a hill behind it. There are sharp distinctions between the image of the house, the foreground area and the background, both in color and focus. But then there is an apparently painted sky. This area was in fact “painted” by the artist using broad gestural strokes of a chemical substance. The contrast between painted area and photographic image is very striking.
A similar technique takes on a mysterious quality in Cades Cove. Here the tiny house sits in what looks like a clearing, its edges sharply defined against the mass of gray trees behind it that seems immersed in fog. Sovjani’s gesture around the base of the structure suggests a ghost-like presence—the whole is magical in its effect.
These two, and many others in the series reminded me of the work of William Christenberry, but Sovjani’s, being less straightforwardly photographic, have a very different emotional effect. The world he presents is seen more as “through the looking glass” unlike Christenberry’s, whose frank images present people and places as they were.
Alice’s trip “through the looking glass” was indeed in Sovjani’s mind when he made Jabberwocky (2015), recalling Lewis Carroll’s fantasy poem included in his book of 1871. Here we have a very old copy of the novel set on a chess board and seen, as it were, through a veil of reflections repeating the name of the nonsense monster. Another in the series, Falling (2013) has the same book falling under the weight of The Wizard of Wall Street—again, all an illusion of space created by the process of layering the image. (Near the bottom is a volume titled Artists Past and Present!)
I don’t want to end this without at least mentioning images from the two other series represented in this group: WHITEWASHED and PAPER WHITE. As mentioned above, WHITEWASHED is a series of digital images of groups of old books that the artist has painted completely white, clearly underlining their object status. Yet, they do retain their identity as books, often because Sovjani photographs them in a small moment where their pages are unfurling. Two of these make an interesting comparison, both from a subset called “Construct.” Construct #6 (2018) shows the arrangement against a black background with only the tiniest hint of a table edge behind them. Their whiteness is complemented by contrasting gray and black details—the curved shape made by the bent spine of the open book placed on top a focal point of the carefully controlled composition.
The following year Construct #9 sets only two books against white, the very subtle shadows and the slight sepia tone give this photo an elegance that is also seen in the cut paper series PAPER WHITE. These are quite varied, and are significantly more abstract in form, but are just as sensitive to shadow and light effects, plus sudden dark contrast areas. One example is PW #14 from 2005. Here the furled edges of the paper cut and prepared by the artist can connote many things to different viewers. This is precisely the result that Sovjani is hoping for.
A short but fascinating video of the artist working was made c. 2012 and is viewable on YouTube: https://youtu.be/6j30FjkUD2E
Andrew Sovjani, Pages & Paper: Explorations of Light and Form, August 22 – September 15, 2020. Calloway Fine Art & Consulting, 1643 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington DC 20007. Tel: 202-965-460 callowayart.com; email@example.com.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Visit their website at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com