Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Fire"

Here's the final statement for my upcoming show at Attic Gallery, which opens Thursday, September 4th (evening reception from 6 to 9pm).

Installation view for "Fire"

The show is essentially a rough draft for a larger ongoing visual essay:

In October 2013, at the Playa artists residency program in eastern Oregon, I began exploring the complex relationship between fire and human beings. All along the steep hillsides of Winter Ridge overlooking the shallow alkaline Summer Lake, stood dead juniper and ponderosa pine, the blackened remnants of the Toolbox Complex Fire in 2002, one of the worst in the nation that year. Many nights at the residency I sat in the common room enjoying the warmth of flames in the large stone fireplace. The irony and contrast between these two facts was not lost on me. In it’s varied forms and uses we simultaneously love fire and fear it, but all too often, at our peril, we take it for granted.

In the Greek myth Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. The god Prometheus is an idea, a myth, a metaphor. But fire is very real and in many ways much like a god in its own right. A million years ago, somewhere in the distant tangle of the family tree between ape and us, early hominids knew its awesome power and learned how to manipulate it and benefit from it. At the dawn of our species, we learned to summon the god at will, calling it forth with sparking flint or the friction of sticks. With it’s aid we became like it, a seemingly unstoppable force moving across landscapes and transforming them utterly.

The domestication of fire occurred well over a hundred thousand years before that of any plant or animal, a vast gulf of time throughout which people gathered around their cooked meals and lingered at their primitive hearths, telling stories in the dark. After the stories, I imagine some of them stayed up just a little bit longer, as we do even now, gazing silently into the shimmering glow of the coals. To this day adults and children alike will stare into a campfire as avidly as any TV drama, evidence of our deep evolutionary connection to the god.

The very idea of domesticated fire suggests its counterpart; wildfire. This summer the Carlton Complex Fire in north central Washington burned 400 square miles and destroyed over 300 homes. It is the worst wildfire in the state’s history. Don’t expect the record to last. Increasingly devastating wildfires in the American west point like a weather vane to the impacts of global climate change. Climate change itself is the direct result of other forests burning, eons of forests that thrived and grew long before humans walked the earth, and which we now burn in the form of oil and coal.

The paintings I’ve done so far constitute the initial notes for a visual essay on the subject. My goal is to explore a wide range of imagery, not just fire itself in its many forms (and there are far more of them than I have had a chance to tackle). Images will also include the impacts of fire, the charred remains of forests and homes, as well as the tools and equipment we use to create, control and extinguish fire. I hope to pursue images of the oil and coal industries that provide the fuel for fire’s most modern form, as well as the engines and power plants, like steel bottles, in which we trap the genie god to do our bidding.

The paintings will be in two formats as you see here; some large to monumental canvases reflecting fire’s power and impact, like my 4 foot by nearly 10 foot depiction of the aftermath of the Cascade Creek Fire on Mt. Adams in 2012. The majority however will be smaller studies on paper reflecting the intimacies of fire, it’s beguiling beauty, it’s haunting touch on personal experience and the seemingly innocuous banality of all the oddments and objects in our lives that serve to remind us of the fire god’s omnipresent nature.

My ambition is not simply to describe the dangers of fire, nor merely to document our collective fascination with it. It is about both of these things. More specifically it is about the inextricable link between the two. For good and ill, using fire is simply what human beings do. The paintings are meant to work as a meditation on this fact. We need fire. Without it we would not exist. And we love fire. It compels us in unfathomable ways. But we fear it too. And rightfully so. Humans have, at various times and places, considered fire both the purest way to deal with death and the cruelest way to inflict it.

Fire is our first and oldest god. Now we have unearthed the fuel of untold millennia to feed it. And it has grown. We need to understand our connection to fire, our deep and unremitting dependence on it, more than ever. We need to understand that in the end it controls us as much we control it. Fire is a god that can never be truly domesticated. If we are not careful, that which helped create us and to this day grants us almost all of our power, may also destroy us.

-David Carmack Lewis
August 2014
Burn (Cascade Creek Fire - Mt. Adams 2012)  oil on canvas  114" x 48"
Fire study no. 10  oil on paper  12" x 16"