Blunt visions: Exhibits explore catastrophic fires, images of death

With its unsparing lens, photography can shatter denial, revealing death in all its cascading grief and loss. Sometimes this exploration spirals into a broader kind of disappearance spanning extinction and renewal.

“On the Nature of Fire” detail by Bonnie Peterson, 2015 embroidery on silk, velvet.

516ARTS is presenting the social and environmental issues behind the West’s catastrophic wildfires, as well as the landscapes of human death, through two concurrent exhibitions: “Fires of Change” and “Landscapes of Life & Death.”

“Landscapes” gathers the works of six photographers in images ranging from a portrait of a popular suicide bridge to charred forests. Former New Mexico Museum of Art photography curator Mary Anne Redding served as curator.

“The theme is looking at how artists process grief; individual grief, death, illness or the destruction of the planet, which is a slow death due to climate change,” she said in a telephone interview from Boone, N.C., where she is the curator at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University.

Ella Sala Myers’ “Atmosphere Series, Thunderhead Closeup.”

Silver City’s Ella Sala Myers died at age 16 in a plane crash while photographing the aftermath of a fire in the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico. Her portraits of the resulting cloudscapes become a larger meditation on death, Redding said. The youngest artist in the exhibit, Myers was still in high school when she died.

“She was a child prodigy,” Redding said. “Her parents think she probably knew she wasn’t going to live to be an older person.”

Kevin Horan’s “Untitled Burn” depicts a scorched Washington state forest as carpet of new, green undergrowth sprouts beneath it.

San Francisco native Donna J. Wan’s “Dumbarton Bridge No. 4” captures the last landscape a suicide victim sees before his or her death.

“She photographs landscapes of suicide,” Redding said.

The downstairs gallery features “Fires of Change,” a Flagstaff Arts Council traveling exhibition featuring sculpture, photography, video, mixed-media and an installation exploring issues behind the rise of catastrophic wildfires.

In late 2014, the artists attended a fire science boot camp through the northern Arizona forests.

“Box and Burn” by Bryan David Griffith, burned ponderosa pine, photo by Tom Alexander.

“I think all of these problems go back to cultural perspectives dating back to the conquering of the Southwest,” curator Bryan David Griffith said. Griffith is a photographer with work in major museum collections.

“We view life and death as opposed forces, or forest and fire,” he said. “That worldview has resulted in the problems we now have.”

“Broken Equilibrium” is his large-scale sculptural installation featuring cut and salvaged trees, as well as their scorched and charred skeletons from nearby forest thinning projects. His “Box and Burn” is a wood sculpture created from a burned ponderosa pine.

It all started when humans interfered with the forest by attempting to smother wildfires through decades of suppression, the artist said.

Natural fires “kill the young trees but not the old trees,” he said. “They create habitat and allow the forest to thrive.”

This natural cycle stopped in the late 19th century with large-scale grazing. The trees grew so densely that forests became the tinderboxes they are today.

“They never get a chance to mature,” Griffith said.

Prescribed burns must be so carefully designed through a multistage process that they are financially prohibitive, he said. To complicate the issue further, satellite maps reveal a checkerboard of squares throughout the forest, their arbitrary borderlines signaling ownership by the federal government, the state, private parties and the railroads, Griffith said.

“So this broken cycle of life has become this feedback loop of destruction.”

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