Why are storms and fire so fascinating? Why do burning houses always draw a crowd?
Part of the attraction lies in the chaotic and unpredictable yet temporary energy of air and flames. Witnessing an incoming storm sweep across water, or watching a fireworks finale fizzle into smoke — that feeling of "nowness" is part of what keeps us riveted to the spot. In "Civil Dusk," the most recent collaboration between Kate Stewart and Ward Davenny, the artists make the ephemeral doubly permanent, fixing smoke in place both as a medium and as a subject in a series of works that apply the formality of painting to an aestheticized vision of destructive force.
These images start with a flat color ground on canvas — in this case, a warm, reflective orange-red, painted with gel that catches soot and fixes it in place. In a physically demanding process, the artists "paint" with tiki-like torches underneath the upside-down canvases, wafting curls of smoke up to be caught by the gel over and over, layering the density and opacity of the smoke's mark. The work is sweaty and difficult, but the result is ethereal and delicate.
The artists counter the chaos of fire by mounting an understated show — a line of large, stark canvases that traverse the Wilson Gallery at Moore. Considered from a distance, they seem like windows onto some horrible disaster outside, a roiling, red-lit landscape punctuated with billows of smoke. Close up, you can examine the density or translucence of the layered smoke and the brush marks that define where the soot will stick to the canvas. At this level of examination the images break down somewhat, but it's easier to appreciate the technique and imagine the physical challenges involved in producing them.
Unlike the smoke-based portraits and drawings of South African artist Diane Victor (which are made with candle smoke directly on glass or paper), the abstract delicacy of Stewart's and Davenny's images undercuts the violence of the flames they use to make the work. The phrase "civil dusk" refers to the post-twilight time of day when the sun has dipped to six degrees below the horizon, leaving some objects distinguishable and some not. Though Stewart and Davenny do not provide an explanation of the title, one can imagine that the ambiguity of these images speaks to the borderline between disaster and beauty, between the day and darkness. Explorations of the sublime aspects of fire, disaster and storms are longtime interests of both Stewart and Davenny, and it's engaging to see them use an object of their fascination to depict the thing that attracts them.
On your way in or out of "Civil Dusk," check out the exuberant "All Together Now," also curated by Kaytie Johnson, at Moore's Windows on Race Gallery. This group show celebrates the opening of Moore's new across-the-Parkway neighbor, the relocated Barnes Foundation, with an energetic salon-style mishmash of works by 15 Philadelphia artists — traditionally framed paintings and drawings mounted alongside simulacra of saws and scissors in an homage to Albert Barnes' habit of displaying Cézannes and Matisses alongside less-pedigreed artifacts like decorative door hinges and tools. (Though here, they're laid out more in a squarish grid than the diamond-loving Barnes likely would have used.) Some linear paintings on the east wall are strangely evocative of Charles Demuth's Piano Mover's Holiday, a 1919 painting which now lives across the street; other objects, like Mark Khaisman's lightbox-and-packing-tape renderings of furniture, pay tribute to Barnes' love of household miscellany. And whether it's intentional or not, Sarah Kate Burgess' joyously frayed paper scissors don't just refer to Barnes' eccentricities of display; they're an interesting link between these two exhibits at Moore — a thing used to create an image of itself.
"Civil Dusk" runs through Aug. 18, "All Together Now" runs through July 28, free, Galleries at Moore, 1916 Race St., 215-965-4027, thegalleriesatmoore.org.