The San Francisco–based photographer John Chiara grew up with a large tumor hanging from his chin; for medical reasons, it couldn’t be removed until he was 15. The artist says that, as a kid, he was “really outgoing” until the benign growth was excised, after which he suddenly “got all shy.” Something similar is going on with his large, one-of-a-kind landscapes shot with a ridiculously ungainly camera the size of a U-Haul trailer, which he tows around the Bay Area in search of resolutely unspectacular vistas. You won’t see any inspiring shots of the Golden Gate here, just self-effacing images of serpentine curbs fronting scrubby hills or rooftops fringed with jagged foliage. Each photo is named after a different intersection, such as Sunnydale at Russia. The titles heighten the deadpan allure of these dark prints, as does Chiara’s working method: He crawls through a trapdoor into his mobile camera, focuses the lens, tapes up a five-foot-wide sheet of Ilfachrome paper, then uses his hands to dodge and burn the image during the typical 20- to 40-minute exposure. In some shots, the sun seems a lumbering comet, its brightness contrasted with the stygian silhouettes of tree branches or a brooding ocean; in all of the pictures, the edge of the continent feels rough and transitional, the colors stunted and not fully formed—even the strongest hues are adulterated by gray fog or bleaching glare. Chiara develops his photos by pouring chemicals into a four-foot-long section of PVC sewer pipe and then rolling it back and forth across the floor, a process that often leaves streaks and drips across the finished prints. This, says the artist, allows for “a noise in the process that I think is revealing and meaningful that’s like the failure of memory.” Beauty resides here in the blanched colors of freeway underpasses, the carefully framed geometries of lopsided apartment buildings, and the ragged tape marks on the surface of the emulsion. The physicality and flaws of Chiara’s methods imbue his plain subjects with a beguiling and numinous grace.
Whatever your décor, these sewn banners by Anna Galtarossa, an Italian, and Daniel Gonzalez, an Argentinean, would surely take it to a new level, though whether up or down is in the eye of the beholder. The sequined background of the five-foot-high Black Mr. Lover-Lover mimics the striated texture of plush black velvet; on it, a skull and a money bag glitter pink and white, respectively. White Mr. Lover-Lover‘s reversed ground shimmers with identical symbols of death and cash. The title of one piece, Absolute Beginner, recalls the 1959 novel about proto–Swinging London and the Notting Hill race riots; strings of pearls and gold tinsel hang from a rainbow like abstract-expressionist drips. Amid the bones, death’s heads, peace signs, and other hippie iconography, the proceedings bubble with an elegiac exuberance. Spencer Brownstone, 39 Wooster, 212-334-3455. Through February 16.
These acrylic paintings direct our attention to objects and places we seldom pay any mind: A bone-white bridge abutment is juxtaposed with olive blobs of vegetation; brown, boxy streetlights jut into a wan, horizonless sky. Sunset Park (2007) ostensibly depicts heavy electrical cables spanning an intersection, but let your eyes scan the umber window recesses of an ocher building and suddenly the dark rectangles shift to pure abstraction as they cross the dusky green stripe representing the thick wires. Webster’s hodge-podge brushstrokes and tenuous fluctuations of color separate these images from poster graphics, even as they smartly play both the abstract and figurative sides of the street. Bespoke, 547 W 27th, 212-695-8201. Through March 1.
A refrigerator spattered with black effluvia hunkers in a dilapidated room; stained, bare mattresses covered with ripped centerfolds lie on the floor under dirty windows. These vintage 1988-89 photos of abandoned U.S. military clubs in Yokohama and Yokosuka convey a sense of the wasteful arrogance of the occupier and the lassitude of the vanquished. A world map with the States front and center and Japan shunted to one side has been only partially torn down, as if the departing force no longer cared about geopolitics or discipline, and the local vandals couldn’t even be bothered. Roth, 160A E 70th, 212-717-9067. Through March 29.
Like a scrawny minion of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Kos’s Equilibre IV (1991) is fashioned from a broom standing upright, supported
only by its slightly spread bristles and topped by a stretched-out coat-hanger weighted on opposite ends by a small bell and candle. Elsewhere, a flat wooden cart balances astride a central axle, battered bocce balls resting like a diminutive solar system on its surface—the slightest pressure of your finger would send worlds cascading to the floor. Universal Donor, Universal Receiver (1995) features a cross excised from a piece of red felt, the leftover corner squares defining a white cross nearby; the red and white diptych conjures thoughts on figure/ground relationships, international charity, and Swiss rectitude. This 65-year-old San Francisco artist projects an expansive wit: A 2006 photograph of a hiker lugging a huge accordion up a snowy mountain is titled Can’t Get It Right No Matter Where I Go. Except maybe in this thoroughly engaging show. Esso, 531 W 26th, 212-560-9728. Through March 8.