Paul Chojnowski's fleeting glances create memorable works of art

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

Fire and water don't mix, but in the hands of artist Paul Chojnowski of Cheshire, Mass., 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,” on display 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.”

Chojnowski has been showing work like this at James Gallery over the past 10 years, most recently in the paper-theme exhibit “Pulp Friction” two years ago at the West End gallery. But he has been making work like this for nearly 20 years.

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, right on up to a roofer's blowtorch, which gives you a point 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 thing 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 anal,” 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 is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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