I work with the idea that art, and painting in particular, has a content that cannot be suppressed. A Klein blue field or Fontana rip means something to the viewer and that meaning follows the a/b formulation of Marcel Duchamp: the artist is on the "a" side inputting content, the painting is the slash and the viewer is on the "b" side viewing it. An artist can intend or function in whatever cosmos he desires, but the viewer is free to "read" on the "b" side whatever she sees. Art is thus both in the eye of the beholder and has an intended specific content.
From my "a" side of it, I think I'm a Western artist in two senses: as a westerner with a lineage going back to the givens of the Greek, Roman and African foundations of European culture and as a California native with the all the dusty trails, campfires and coyotes of a magical California legacy. This neck of the woods is famous for hallucinations and visions: it's the birth place of cinema, many religious cults and is the most ethnically diverse place in the world. I see my work as an exploration of what emanates from our land: our psychological terroir; an ineffable that gives unique characteristics to the creative endeavors undertaken here.
When one of my works reflects California, reflects my memories of sonic booms, years of astronomy club, reflects concerts at the Hollywood Bowl with Piatigorsky or The Tubes at the Santa Monica Civic, or college years in the Eden that is Berkeley, or perhaps a memorable ash downpour falling after another canyon goes up in flames --then I can claim a little satisfaction in the impossible pursuit of painting in California.
My interest in smoke as a medium dates to my early student years at Cal. I was studying etching and reading up on Surrealism at the same time. When working with very light acid resist grounds on metal etching plates, I learned an Old Master technique to see the lines drawn by the etching needle in the nearly transparent ground: apply smoke to the surface. The smoke bonds with the resin ground and the lines are then easily seen as one works the plate. Harold Paris taught me this.
I was also reading about various automatic drawing techniques used to move imagery away from conscious control. These procedures have colorful names like collage, frottage, soufflage, heatage, étrécissements, decalcomania, cubomania, coulage, etc. Fumage is the term for techniques using smoke. Wolfgang Paalen was known for pioneering this, and later Yves Klein used a variant in his “Fire Paintings.”
There is another consideration related to automatic drawing and writing that fumage allows. In automatic writing and drawing with a pen or pencil, the Surrealists felt that continuous contact with the surface was important. André Masson ran up against problems when he tried to extend his automatic drawings on paper to canvas: the brush ran out of paint quickly. He solved this problem by dripping glue onto the canvas then adhering sand. The morphology mimicked his drawings well. He later dripped paint, as did Max Ernst, among others. Pollock adapted this technique into his Action Paintings.
Another way of solving the automatic drawing-to-painting problem is of course with a trail of smoke from an endless flame. Wolfgang Paalen didn’t really think this way, he used the smoke interchangeably with painted lines. For me smoke not only solves this problem, it solves another: the creation of complex scale independent imagery –or fractal imagery. Dripping paint or glue does not accomplish this.
At Cal in 1976 I studied a bit with a group of mathematicians working on Chaos Theory through the window of differential equations. Fractal math was coming on just as I moved into art, but I instantly knew that smoke worked as a generator of fractal imagery. [Also the pulsing of a flame is often used to demonstrate different chaotic orders, but this is a bit off topic for all but the guy handling the torch -me!] For the viewer the effect can be likened to viewing a rocky coastline from orbit, an airplane, standing and through a magnifying glass: the character of the coastline is scale independent: it always looks like a coastline no matter how near or far your point of view. Smoke does the same thing. It always retains the curlicues and density patterns of smoke no matter how close or far away you get. FYI Photoshop has a nice imagery generator that uses fractal math to create realistic looking smoke.
The only problem remaining for me was the paint itself. I make most of my paint from scratch using a variety of pigments, solvents, fillers and mediums. The secret to smoke adhering to the surface is to apply it when the paint is still tacky, but do that with “interesting” paint is not so easy. I’ve studied the technology of paint for 30 years.
The secret to the imagery is even harder to relate and is best appreciated by looking at the work and thinking about the title. One last point: unlike drip painting, which is done with the canvas on the floor, smoke painting is accomplished with the work overhead. I use a gimbal of ropes to allow angling, whirling and drafts of air to produce a wealth of marks from the smoke. I also use an enlarged color palette via fluorescent pigments that makes the works impossible to reproduce in the full spectrum experienced by the proximate viewer.
page 2 ~ a talk given at Meridian Gallery on July 11, 2008