Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Fire: flashes to ashes in British Art

This thought-provoking exhibition at RWA Bristol looks at the depiction of fire over the last four centuries of British art. There are so many aspects of fire – it can be creative or destructive, put to industrial use or a homely presence that provides light and warmth. It has irreversible powers of transformation when used as a material. In short a fascinating subject for art.

The main gallery was dominated by Tim Shaw’s Man on fire, seen here with Sarah Pickering’s Match in the background. This huge figure of a man being consumed by fire, in a state between life and death, was originally conceived as a proposal for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square and is a commentary on the invasion of Iraq. Pickering’s Match is an image of a replica of the first friction match made by John Walker in 1827. The exhibition combines history, industry and domesticity throughout. Many of the older paintings by such well known artists as Joseph Wright of Derby and Graham Sutherland celebrate the use of fire in industry, the former’s Blacksmith’s workshop brilliantly depicting the effect of heat on the smiths and the play of firelight on the spectators. Historical subject include J M W Turner’s Fire at the Tower of London and HMS Ark Royal in action by Eric Ravilious. 

The modern pieces that appealed to me most were those that used fire as material. Cornelia Parker’s Red hot poker drawings (in the image at the top) combine order and chaos in the neat folding of the pristine white paper pierced by the heat of the fire. I also liked Sian Bowen’s Gaze no 14 which used the heat of laser cutting to produce images on paper. Susan Hiller’s Measure by measure II (image above), a series of test tubes each containing the ashes of one of her paintings, which she had burned to destruction, reflected on the destructive nature of fire and the fleeting essence of life.
I also enjoyed the immersive nature of Sophie Clements’ There, After, a video installation of an explosive burning experience in the studio, filmed in the round and experienced in the dark with the accompanying crackling audio sounds of the burning process. Aoife van Linden Tol also uses fire performances to create her works of art, represented in the exhibition by the remains of the process; a detail of Copper blast is shown above.

This is just a taste of the pieces in the exhibition which varied from meticulously painted depictions of fire in industry, war and home, to conceptual ideas about the fragility of life. It certainly captured the brilliance of fire’s creative potential as well as its destructive power

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