The thirteen artists in Fire Works harness the potentially destructive power of fire to create works of great beauty and intensity. Some of them use fire as a subtractive force, burning through paper or objects, creating by erasure. Others use fire to alter materials--melting, fusing or making indelible marks. Still others capture smoke on paper, metal or glass, allowing the carbon to mark the surfaces directly. Employing candles, blowtorches, wood-burning tools, bomb fuses, incense sticks, fire, soldering irons, sunlight, and even fireworks as tools and methods for making art, these artists strike a delicate balance between risk and control, destruction and creation. The results, while often surprising, are always impressive.
There is precedence for the use of fire in art, with a handful of 20th century avant-garde artists exploring unorthodox methods. Wolfgang Paalen was a Surrealist who developed a technique for painting with smoke known as fumage. Alberto Burri, a self-taught Italian artist, worked with a variety of non-traditional materials and began to burn his wood and burlap "paintings" in the 1950s, calling the technique combustione. By the late 1950s French artist Yves Klein was making "Fire Paintings" by aiming a flame-thrower at composition boards. Like the artists in Fire Works, they were attracted by the spontaneous element of chance, discovering a dynamic tension in the fine line between chaos and control.
Judy Chicago experimented in the late 1960s with smoke and fireworks for large-scale outdoor performance pieces she called Atmospheres. Ana Mendieta's transitory Silueta series from the 1970s often involved the ritualistic use of fire as a source of exorcism or purification. For John Baldessari's seminal Cremation Project of 1970, the artist cremated nearly all the paintings he had created between 1953 and 1966 and baked cookies with some of the ashes. These artists all recognized the inherent performance aspect of working with fire--an idea that influenced such subsequent developments as performance art, happenings and conceptual art. Performance is an implicit element for all of the works in this exhibition; several of the artists document their activities with photography and video.
Of the four elements--fire, water, earth and air--fire is the only one that is always actively transformative. Unchecked, fire indiscriminately consumes, leaving only ashes in its wake. Yet while burning and scorching can cause indelible scars, a wisp of disappearing smoke is perhaps the ultimate symbol of ephemerality. The artists of Fire Works explore this dichotomy between the permanent and the transient, the material and the immaterial, and in the process create compelling works of art.
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