I remember the children who were obsessed with flames—they coveted matches, lit their hair on fire, ignited apartment buildings, and destroyed forests. Humans love the incendiary. In the Midwest, there are university students who set cars on fire when their beer has run out. And throughout the world Olympic runners light torches and protesters, flags...Kathy, a poet with a poster shop on the Jersey shore, sells hundreds of posters of the detonation of the Atomic bomb. “Cool,” says the purchaser. Cool, they say, but they also mean hot—destructive, melting, annihilating.
So this is my advice: Any drawing—be it a carved and steepled German church, a sleek hot rod, a white lady in white diaphanous skirts or otherwise—will be significantly improved if flames are added to the picture and the object contained within the frame is burning. By suggesting that flames be added to any and all pictures, I am not considering the feelings or intentions of the artist; I am thinking solely about viewer satisfaction and our burning desire for burning.
When the church was cold and perfect, we were bored. When the hotrod was shining and directed, it was too macho and seemed impervious to view in a way that was alienating. When the lady in diaphanous skirts, the sugary debutante, was whole, we hated her; she had the frigid and singular quality of a girl who refuses to take a mirror to her own vagina; she never associated with her nether parts or us. But when she began to burn, she was lovely; her skirts were curling crisply, and we admired her icy fortitude in the face of calamity.
Things that are stodgy and stationary—home entertainment centers, steamer trunks, laundry hampers—are boring unless they are visibly on the verge of combustion. Consider the economic successes engendered by the use of flames in the past: the heavy metal outfits that striate their albums, t-shirts and g-tars in flames; then there are the semis: jack-knifing down steep freeway grades, cabs swathed in painted fire, delivering iceberg lettuce to the Californian desert suburbs; and last but not least, the beauty industry’s (both cosmetic and pornographic) promethean tactics—where the flickering flames of a fire can often be spotted in the gap between the tawny thighs of a surgically perfect young woman—and then there are the names of the lipsticks on the very wet lips of the ladies that kneel on bear rugs: Burnt Cherry, Too Hot To Handle, Flaming Scarlet, Fire Engine Red, Detroit is Burning (well, not the last one).
When an African-American neighborhood, a hotrod, this church, that smoky and smoking debutante are graphically enflamed—their transitory nature is now self-evident. What the fire reminds is that we are always in a state of being devoured and that a fiery object—human or otherwise—cannot be possessed; you cannot hold a burning object and when it cools, who wants its charred, falling remains? And perhaps ignition is associated with our deepest fear: who will love us as we are—half-consumed, irreparably damaged? But, right now, you and I, the viewer/pyromaniac, love the burning object, more than ever—but only because it is burning. We don’t love the cinders, the corpse, the end.
But what about water—the cascade, the torrent, the deluge, the tidal wave? Why privilege fire over water—scorching over drenching, the explosion versus the flood?
Last year, a friend called from Chicago. He was excited because he had just returned from a walk where he came across a stroller burning in the center of a vacant lot. He realized that he wanted a picture of this, but also knew that if he fetched his camera, he would simply be returning to its cooling skeleton. What does the image of an abandoned and burning stroller provoke that a sunken one does not? Are we bound to Revelations and its fiery predictions—where fire is both the end (of one life)—and the beginning (of another)? But why are we seemingly more entranced by the archaic hearth and not so much by the primordial pool–when we could just as easily abscond to and regenerate from the water that constitutes seventy-five percent of our body? Is it because we associate fire with the power of murder—incinerating our enemies instead of wetting them? Or is it something else? When thousands descend on the Burning Man Festival—replete with psychoactive drugs and sun-tanned hard-ons—do they love a pyre enveloped in flames because the water is simply not spectacle enough?
I added fire to the more ho-hum drawings hanging in my bedroom: a singular water tower with moisture dark wood and rickety planks, and a winding road that headed towards a stand of non-descript low-lying hills. When I recalled that I had once dreamt of a flaming water tower, the memory now seemed more night prophesy than dream—something subliminal willed this drawing into being.
Not unlike the Super Friends’ Wonder twins, the cartoon alien siblings who were often turning themselves into a form of water or an animal (often as eagle and a bucket of water), I had conjured up (twice) the visual sum of myself—in the form of a flaming water tower. Is this what people meant when they referred to having a locatable and describable soul – as if their souls were objects that could be rendered by an artist? Where did they get this idea? From a doe-eyed Christ ripping open his pastel blue robes to reveal a beating and flaming heart? I don’t know. But what I can deduct from this experiment is not only that my own fleeting existence is embodied in this maelstrom of flames but that my drawings were all significantly improved by this very simple additive device. It was all I could do to stop myself from adding fire to each and everyone: a smoldering but vacant basketball court, a burning fish market, a kitten flaming in the shelter of human hands, a mission aflame, a hot air balloon ablaze, a fiery of falling timbers revealed in the collapsing French castle, a weird country girl haplessly standing in the ruins of a charred kissing booth.
ContributorMary Walling Blackburn
Blackburn is an artist and writer living in Greenpoint. She teaches at NYU.