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Jonathan Griffin, On Fire

Art is a stubborn survivalist, having been buried alive many times over by theorists prone to writing autopsy reports. But what happens when a work of art is accidentally thrown on the funeral pyre?

In On Fire, Paper Monument’s latest release, Jonathan Griffin speaks with artists whose work has been destroyed in studio fires, devoting each of the book’s ten chapters to a different account. Together their responses shake out into four distinct categories. The first comes when the fire is a complete accident; the sheer unfairness of these stories is devastating, and the response is to lean on superstition, as when Anthony Pearson claims his fire “felt like a sign.” Another result is enduring trauma: When William J. O’Brien lost hundreds of his artworks, he struggled with demands that he emerge resolute; in reality, he says, “I think that there’s this void that I always will carry with me.”

(Paper Monument, 2016)

The third response is guilt. Dangers are inherent to certain artistic processes, and recklessness can easily lead to disaster. Catherine Howe’s studio burned because she had left rags soaked in linseed oil, a combination that, on rare occasions, is known to spontaneously combust. When she smelled smoke and saw the flames engulfing her studio, her thoughts and emotions went not to her paintings, but to her irresponsibility. “What in the hell have you done?” she remembers thinking, “You’ve almost killed yourself and your dog and you’re burning your house down.”

Finally, there are those who embrace the experience, reshuffling the stakes and resources into a perspective bent on freedom. Kate Ruggeri lost the early foundations of a budding career when her studio caught fire just two years out of art school. “It’s easy as a young artist to just arrive at something that works, and to just try to perfect that, or make it more showable,” she says—but after the fire, “I felt like I had something to say.”

The plight of artists who endure beyond their work is that no matter their preferred practice or medium, the destroyed work becomes something of a piece of conceptual art: the artist’s ideas, or the very impetus to create, suddenly become more precious just by virtue of having survived. The book thereby exposes the sheer physical heft of art, and the materialism of artists and art lovers alike. O’Brien said that his fire “made things too real […] I saw that it was just fabric, it was just ceramic. There’s nothing special about art.”

These first-person ruminations are the highlights of the book. But while Paper Monument markets On Fire as both an “oral history” and a “behind-the-scenes look at daily life in the artist’s studio,” in truth it is neither. Oral history indicates a dedication to the speaker’s original words, unmediated by editorial intrusion and extensive enough that it creates its own context; but rather than favoring the nuance, minutiae, and contradiction of a transcribed interview, Griffin folds the artists’ quotes into his own prose. The problem here is that, while deftly written, these brief encounters (each chapter clocks in at about six pages) don’t differentiate enough between the artists and their work, and each chapter ends up fading into another, lost in a litany of destruction. Rarely does Griffin make us invest in these artists’ lives, art, or spaces before he chronicles the quantity and quality of loss. Moreover, as soon as Griffin glimpses the edge of an emotionally candid moment, he shuts down the narrative, as in his conclusion to Pearson’s chapter. “It’s really a part of you. Destroyed,” Pearson says of losing his artwork. “To me it feels very visceral. It almost feels as if my arm is like gangrenous and dangling, I just want to cut it off.” And with that loaded remark, Griffin abruptly ends the chapter, sensationalizing his emotions simply by refusing to investigate or contextualize them. The result is neither strict oral history nor an in-depth examination of the artist’s life; instead, Griffin has created a book of aphorisms, which vacillates too much in tone—sometimes tragic, sometimes unfazed and glib—to have any lingering effect.

The first artist Griffin spoke to was Brendan Fowler, who connected him with many of the other artists, hoping the project would serve as a “cautionary tale.” When Griffin asks what, in hindsight, he wished he had known, Fowler replies, unequivocally, “insurance.” Griffin steps in here to write:

But how many artists choose to—or can even afford to—insure the contents of their studios properly? Very few, I would guess. Most young artists I know do not even have health insurance, and given the choice between protecting my health and my property, I know where my own priorities would lie.

Whatever alarm this is meant to sound emits a dull thump. This superficial speculation is so unabashed in its lack of research that it frustrates the work that Griffin has done in collecting these stories. Though Griffin mentions in passing the precariousness of the cheap and alternative spaces in which artists work, he refuses to investigate the more structural problems, the fundamentals of how insurance, infrastructure, and funding put artists in these positions. In the capitalistic mesh, an artwork is often valued more highly than the person who created it. Standing in the ashes of these works, Griffin might have used his position to show the artist as more deserving of care and support. Instead, his treatment subsists on trite assessments of the unique space the artist inhabits, both socially and literally, buying into an outmoded mythology that artists are outside of society, rather than inheritors, perpetrators and victims of it.

In the prologue, Griffin states that studio fires are unlike residential, warehouse or art school fires, or flooding caused by natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, because studio fires, he says, are “random and unpredictable”; they are “private affairs” through which the “victims suffer alone.” No matter that he has ten examples capable of debunking this—stories of fires with direct or structural causes and artists whose experiences link rather than isolate them. As a limited compilation, the book separates artists into a class all their own, rather than aligning them with those who similarly suffer from difficult, underserved living and working conditions. It is notable that the artists he has selected are all white and financially stable enough to emerge from their fires relatively unscathed; the result is a data set that is painfully homogenous.

The result is a work founded more upon personal conjecture than critical analysis. The closest he gets to the latter is this:

What patterns, then, do emerge? Many, I admit, I find difficult to parse. What, for instance, to make of the fact that of all the artists I encountered who had had fires, only two were women? […] Does it reflect the contemporary art world’s preference for stories about men, or men’s preference for telling stories about themselves? Are there scores of female studio fire victims unseen and unheard? Or alternatively, could it reveal something about the situations of risk that male artists are more likely to place themselves in?

Griffin poses these rhetorical questions as if they were unanswerable, evading his responsibility, to his subjects and his readers, to do more thorough scholarship. Instead he has created a closed circuit with outdated electrical wiring that doesn’t even risk a spark.


Sarah Cowan

is a writer based in New York. Her writing on art, film, and books has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker Culture Desk, New York Review of Books Daily, the Paris Review, and MIT Department of Architecture’s Thresholds 47: Repeat.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

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