Robert Raczka, [Forest Fire], 2011, found painting and text panel, overall dimensions 24 x 40 inches

This artwork consists of a found painting and a text panel that I wrote analyzing and interpreting that painting. I consider this an artist-curator project--which is how I think of my other projects with found paintings--and it builds upon my experience as both an artist and a curator.



(Note: following is the text from the text panel)

Artist unknown

[Forest Fire]

probably oil on canvasboard probably before 1960 (based on condition of back of panel)

This is an example of a “found painting,” also known as “thrift store art,” referring to gleanings from a loosely defined category of donation-based thrift stores operated by non-profit social service agencies, homeowner–operated garage sales, and assorted for-profit secondhand stores, including some misidentified as antique stores or antique malls, though they may include some antiques. This painting was in fact purchased in a used lamp and lighting store that does an unadvertised side business in “collectibles,” most of which are decidedly not collectible.

Most handmade art offered for sale in such circumstances is clearly the work of amateurs and hobbyists and typically depicts one of a handful of subjects including landscapes with snowcapped mountains, rural landscapes prominently featuring barns or mills, still life’s dominated by flowers in vases, or portraits of people or dogs or occasionally even cats.

In its depiction of a raging inferno—a tired but in this case unavoidable cliché—this painting is, in my experience, unique. Given that amateurs’ output is intended primarily for the decoration of their own or friends’ homes, it is highly unlikely that an amateur would paint a picture of such a subject. The fact that it is painted on canvasboard (an inexpensive manufactured product of canvas pre-primed with gesso and firmly affixed to chipboard) initially suggests a moderately serious amateur—a category of painters for whom canvasboard is the sine qua non of semi-advanced practice--but canvasboard has also long been popular with professional illustrators who create work for reproduction in books or magazines and want the inimitable effect of painting on canvas without the cost-ineffective trouble of stretching and priming raw canvas.

Additionally supporting the possibility that this was painted by a professional artist is the looseness and confident purpose with which it was painted, including the bold layering of paint on the aspen trunk. It is a thoroughly undetailed piece of work in which things are suggested rather than labored over, with laboriousness being one of the chief characteristics and charms of amateur painting. Fire sweeps through the picture, patches of low-lying brush emerge there and there, and flames roar up through the pines while burning branches drop down in vertical swaths of flame. It is a very convincing rendering of a forest fire. It appears that pictorially the flame was deemed too engulfing by the artist who went back with a sandy brown paint in the upper right and upper left corners to create a vignetting effect that directs our attention toward the center, with the brown being one of very few colors in a limited yet wholly sufficient palette.

The subject of a forest fire is seen at very close, potentially life-threatening distance, such that might be experienced by a firefighter. The setting is a typical Rocky Mountain landscape of pines and aspen with the white aspen appearing deep pink in reflecting the surrounding flames. The inclusion of the aspen may have been an afterthought to create heightened drama with the pink paint overlaid onto what appears to have been initially intended as the dark trunk of a pine tree. And while pine-aspen combinations do occur throughout the northeastern United States, they are far less pervasive there than they are in the West, as are forest fires themselves.

What was the source of the visual information in this painting, the knowledge of what a forest fire looks like up close? We can assume that it was not based on direct observation or firsthand sketches, even as those possibilities cannot entirely be ruled out. In an age of ubiquitous photography, we do not expect either amateur or professional landscape painters to go to the trouble and expense of on-site observation, the practice of “plein air” painting that more-or-less died out in the early Twentieth century, though it persists in modified form in the practice of landscape photographers as well as in the essentially retrograde practice of many watercolorists. If this was painted as an illustration for reproduction in print (presumably at a much smaller scale, which could account for the lack of detail), then it may well have gone full circle as an image: from photographic source to painting to photographic reproduction.

While this could be considered as falling within the broad category of landscape painting, it is also a depiction of an event—a fragment in time—which represents a larger category of events (forest fires), and either embodies or incidentally evokes the power and sublimity of nature as well as the hubris of humankind’s stubbornly persistent belief that nature can be marshaled and mastered. As a static depiction of an event and its implied larger narrative arc of unfolding-peaking-winding down, this image is unable to explore human and natural causes, firefighting techniques, prevention, the effects of government policies, the psychopathology of arson, and the connection to large-scale patterns of land use, residential development, and the allocation of resources—all of which are readily brought to mind by an invocation of “forest fire.”