Capturing the “edge of chaos” has been the artistic goal of photographer David Ricci for the past four decades. His training as an engineer has steered his sensibilities to the observation and documentation of systems that complexity scientists investigate: What occurs when large quantities of individual elements coalesce? At these super high levels of organization, what new structures arise? According to Ricci’s forthcoming book, a whole new phenomenon appears, fundamentally different and greater than any of its parts. This phenomenon is the “edge of chaos.” Ricci goes on to explain, “Like free jazz, everything is not always in perfect harmony, yet a novel, vibrant creation surfaces.”
In his book and current solo exhibit, both titled “Edge of Chaos,” Ricci explores these questions with photographs he has taken since the mid-1980s. Ricci brings both his natural predilection for analytical observation and an engineer’s curiosity about interrelated systems to his compositions. A telling comment in his book provided a window to the approach to his work that developed in his early teens. He cited studying geometry in high school as a critical influence on the formation of his aesthetic.
“Geometry spoke to me,” Ricci said. “I found its purity, its simple elegance, its development from a few basic axioms to thousands of intricate proofs compelling and alluring … While never consciously trying to incorporate geometry into my photographs, basic geometric shapes worked their way into the earliest images, and in later projects more intricate underlying geometric order anchors the work.”
Ricci’s photographs are in series, all named referencing reactions or processes in physics: elements, emergence, fission, fusion, strings, entanglements. The common thread connecting all his images is human presence, or rather, the telltale signs of it. Abandoned buildings and shuttered factories; extravagant but empty amusement park rides whose infrastructure defies the imagination along with gravity; junked vehicles, layer upon layer of rusted engine blocks; commercial fishing equipment haphazardly strewn on the decks of trawlers. All the elements that bring his work to the tipping point of information overload and to the edge of chaos.
The progression of Ricci’s work to highly complex compositions developed over years of conscientious observation and thousands of photographs. The work “Precision” comes from the series “Elements,” his earliest, where the images are more hard-edged, clean, precise, uncomplicated. They are studied and well composed. Ricci stated that 20th-century artists influence his compositions, referencing the works of Piet Mondrian as the inspiration for the effect he wanted to achieve in Elements.
“Wonderland,” an image from the series “Emergence,” was shot 10 years after “Precision.” The gigantic circles of two overlapping Ferris wheels dominate. Multiple diagonals crisscross the foreground, putting in relief the evolution of Ricci’s work to more complex compositions. “Initially focusing on the physical structures of the attractions … I was soon drawn to the kitschy man-made landscapes when the crowds were gone,” he stated.
The work “Departure” is in the series “Fission,” the term from physics indicating objects forcibly being pulled apart. “Fission” is an examination of dismantled factories, damaged buildings and disaster sites. The building being dismantled in the photograph was the venerable English Brothers’ Department Store, over a century in business, in Ricci’s home town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
“Angular Momentum” is representative of the “Fusion” series, the term referring to the force bringing together or melding objects. The image brings together the remains of an antique pickup truck, precariously balanced and set at an angle atop a heap of rusted pipes, discarded sheet metal and old tires. Angular momentum is a specific term in physics which references the potentiality of an object in relation to its angular velocity and inertia. And it is exactly that potential of the truck teetering above a pile of random junk that we experience.
The images “Taut” and “Olivia Rafael” are from the series “Entanglements” where Ricci focuses on the fishing industry in New England. The decks of trawlers are randomly loaded up with the artifacts of the small commercial fishing operations found all along the coast: nets, ropes, buoys, life preservers, lobster traps, fuel drums, all demonstrating the destructive effects of confronting the ocean’s waves and corrosive salt spray.
With his photographs, Ricci explores the overloaded visual content of locations and collection of objects with a scientific framework that sets his work apart and challenges us to look, then look again.
(Edge of Chaos: Photographs by David Ricci runs from May 22 through June 28 at ArtSpace Maynard, 63 Summer St., Maynard, Massachusetts. An artist reception will be held on Saturday, June 1 from 5–7 p.m. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. For more information, call (978) 897-9828.)