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.