As a child, Chris Schiavo sought refuge from the chaos of her family’s small Queens, N.Y., home by rampaging through backyards with other neighborhood kids, trampling busted fences and building forts.
“It was my territory, as close to nature as it got,” explains New York City multimedia artist Schiavo, whose photo series “The Backyard” opens in an ArtHaus show today in The City. “I’d pretend it was the wilds or woods.”
While studying photography at State University of New York at Purchase, Schiavo would visit her mother in Queens, working on school projects in the backyard.
After her mother fell ill, Schiavo would coax her to the bedroom window so she could weigh in on what her daughter was creating for school.
The neon circus of the downtown New York City art scene in the 1980s also influenced her work, especially when flaky bandmates in punk bands proved unreliable.
It was frustrating, she says, “when you rely on four people to make something happen and half are doing junk and not showing up. I wanted to do something I could count on. Focusing on the photography gave me more control.”
Schiavo’s nostalgia for backyards inspired the series, which has been 12 years in the making, but the images she creates are more eerie than pastoral.
They are whimsical avant-garde installations: chromeogenic prints in which models are often headless or wear masks, garden hoses become electric neon snakes and artificial light makes fake shadow birds take flight. Schiavo incorporates objects grabbed from neighboring yards, paints the ground, paints living leaves, manufactures unnatural shadows, all to make the real unreal.
“Matisse cut up a space, made it like a flat drawing,” Schiavo explains. “I thought, ‘What can I do to make this three-dimensional yard 2-D?’ I played a lot with op-art, color opposites — trying to challenge Kodak. I wanted to see how far I could push the photo plane, making it a painting or drawing.”
A surrealist influence is palpable: “Fido” was conceived in a pre-dawn dream. Schiavo went out into the yard, arranged the image she wanted, took the photo of the flaming dog house and went back to bed.
Schiavo abandoned The Backyard for a while, working on film and sound projects. With the advent of Photoshop in 1990, she found that many people assumed her striking, dreamy images were digitally enhanced. “People weren’t getting what I was doing,” she says. “So I thought, what’s the point?”
But ideas for doing photographs crept back in, and “something started to click,” she says. “I wanted to be outside and let things happen organically, see how nature would control you.”
IF YOU GO
Photos by Chris Schiavo
Where: ArtHaus, 411 Brannan St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes Sept. 30
Contact: (415) 977-0223, www.arthaus-sf.com
Note: An opening reception runs from 6 to 8 p.m. today.