What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

June 1, 2023

Chris Engman
Luis de Jesus Los Angeles
April 29 - June 10, 2023

Chris Engman

Chris Engman creates photographic illusions with an exact vantage point where the images cohere. In the past, he has transformed gallery spaces by covering the walls and floors with images, pinpointing a spot on the floor from which to view the illusion. More often than not, these architectural interventions are fabricated in his studio and he documents them to present images within images. Engman's subject is often the natural landscape— be it an ocean, desert or mountain scene. That being said, he has also made works featuring crinkled paper inscribed with lines and geometric shapes extending out of a wooden frame, as well as pieces that confounded the geometry within the frame to disrupt the immediate of perception of a photographic image. He explores the many different ways he can play with illusions.

For Prism, he collaborates with his young son Elio who draws and paints atop the photographic murals placed on the walls of the studio, in many ways disrupting or breaking the perspectival illusion. Engman states that a prism "allows us to see what is present but not perceived." He continues that a camera is a prism and his son is his prism... "The world I see through his eyes is new and strange, terrifying and beautiful."

The best way to understand the images is to dissect one. At first glance, Play Room (2021) is a color photograph depicting a horizon where the sky meets the ocean. Centered in the image however, is a rectangle that is, in fact a window backlit from the light outside the space. Upon close examination, it becomes evident that this is not an image of the ocean, but rather an image of an interior space that has been covered with large-scale photographic images of an ocean and sky. Many prints have been fragmented and reconstituted to appear as a single image. Placed along the walls and corners of the room are children's toys that are not covered with these image fragments while squiggly marks in different colors of chalk cover parts of the walls and floor, in essence breaking the illusion.

In addition to numerous enigmatic images like Play Room, Engman also includes a few objects in the gallery space— a ladder, a stool and a shelf— that help those not familiar with his process comprehend how the works were constructed for the camera. For example, the object Stool (2023) comes directly from the setting of Play Room. Here, Engman covers a wooden cube with a photograph of children's toys and markers adhering them to the surface so that from a certain perspective they become a flattened image. Ladder appears in the work Cliff (2022) leaning against a wall covered with an image of a cliff, as well as being a stand alone object covered with the same photograph as it appears in the image, yet now removed from its setting.

Looking at Engman's works is often like trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle. What at first glace appears to be a landscape is in reality a composite of multiple image fragments. From a distance in Pour (2022), the picture coheres as a forest of lush trees. Looking closer, one makes out steps leading up and a wide plank at an angle that parallels the stairs. Though covered with photographic murals that comprise the forest, soon it becomes evident that there are long drips of paint that have cascaded down the incline and pooled up where it meets the floor. Once the mind recognizes the representation and the actual setting of the image, it vacillates back and forth between the two possibilities in much the same way as the duck or bunny brain teaser.

Many of the pieces in Prism are covered with marks by Engman's son. Using his son's interventions as a point of departure, Engman covers Monsters (2023) -- a large work that spans 120 inches square and depicts a rocky peak -- with blobs and gestural lines in acrylic and oil pastel. Gone is the illusion in favor of the pleasure of collaboration and the pure joy of spontaneity. Engman's exhibit delights in the juxtaposition of complex and precisely constructed mind teasers with lines drawn by a child. By allowing an aspect of play to enter the work, he has expanded the boundaries of his practice.