Installation Magazine: Your new body of work Smoke employs a complex, unusual and sophisticated method of taming and painting with smoke. How did you develop this technique to achieve this unusual effect?
Rob Tarbell: The smoke technique began around 2005 with a few ideas coming together to form a what if moment. The first idea was a self-help technique of burning sentimental things to remove their emotional connection or physical burden. After visiting the Sistine Chapel (after its cleaning and restoration), I saw the significance of the accumulation of smoke over time. After many failed attempts to create a portrait using liquor and cigarette smoke, the what if moment kicked in. What if I got rid of all my credit cards, membership cards, and gift cards by burning them and captured the smoke to create an image? Seeing the resulting smoke led me down the path that I am on now.
How do you tame such a fragile medium?
This work is created by controlling the accumulation of smoke on the paper surface. It is a purely additive process and results in a mark that my hand or a brush cannot make. It is also a different approach and product than directly burning the paper surface to create an image. The idea of working indirectly and controlling the conditions to create an image interests me. The process of figuring out how to make this technique work is also interesting. There wasn’t much to go on other than trial and error, which as expensive as it is, has been rewarding. It is frustrating to create work this way, I never know what I am going to get, if anything, but that in turn leads to surprises. It’s comical to think back about its beginnings. I started with a crude set up in a metal garage of my then girlfriend/ now wife, Anna. I was holding the paper above the flame, while holding my breath, then running out once I thought I had something. The setup developed around the idea that heat rises and the smoke has a flow to it and controlling the flow is key. I was clipping the paper to giant cable ties I found in the garage. Figuring out how not to get burned and how to stay in there longer was tricky. Now, I work in a room we built equipped with ventilation and a carbon air filter unit. I wear a flame resistant suit and use a fresh air system with a mask and air hose and have a pulley system rigged up. There are also three fire extinguishers handy, none of which I have had to use. I went through many, many trials of burning different things. The credit cards and membership cards worked well, but I found burning 35mm slides of my old work to be more satisfying. I wasn’t getting rid of the slides as much as transforming them and infusing the new work with the old. Later, I acquired a slide library from an art history survey course. The newer work is informed by and infused with art history.
How much time do you have from the moment the material burns until you can guide the smoke into the desired form?
There is smoke immediately after lighting but I have to wait a little to get the good smoke. From beginning to end, the burn lasts about five minutes of good smoke time and depending on the size of the piece, I have to do more than one burn. I think the 40” x 30” piece I did for Installation took about 45 minutes of smoke time. Planning and prep time is whole other story.
Are the scenes derived from your imagination or do you reference archive posters or photography from circus performances?
I researched the history of the American circus and then created my versions based on aspects of those. I found some incredible behind-the-scenes type portraits of circus performers doing their tricks outside tents during rehearsal. They seem to be taken for fun or documentation rather than for promotion. The photos are oddly intimate, playing to the photographer rather than to the camera or an audience. As informal as the photos were, they still had to convincingly perform their trick. I created my pieces with the approach that these weren’t actual performances, but ones done for friends. So the people in the Smoke are my wife and friends dressed up in funny outfits and costumes goofing around, doing yoga poses or cheerleading stunts while jumping on a trampoline. Unfortunately, I don’t have a live elephant handy, so I look at elephant photos and also replicas or toys. The zebras are actually horses, which are readily available where we live. The tents are drawn from photos I took of a craft fair that sets up in a park near our house. I like the fact that I am playing to the illusion that is at the heart of most circus acts– by creating convincing images that are by no means a true reflection of the acts actually captured to create the ultimate image. As made up as it all is, it is convincing. At one opening in Baltimore, I was approached by a woman who has spent her life performing in and managing circuses. She came specifically to ask me about my circus background, and asked my wife how long she had been riding and training horses. I am not sure she was entirely thrilled with my explanation that the performers were friends in pirate costumes jumping on a trampoline on my deck, but she did tell me the name of a few of the tricks I had managed to depict in my pieces.
I imagine that in honing your technique you must have put out plenty of fires!
There were a few harrowing failures and a few minor burns, but thankfully not very many. I am aware of what is going on but I am grateful for the gloves, fire resistant suit, and concrete floors. I have been lucky to lose only a few really good pieces I was working on. The potential for a flaming sheet of paper to come crashing down from above is a little alarming, but it keeps me focused. I strongly believe that failing is part of the process. In fact, it is the process of contemplating and producing new work that excites me the most– and failing is very much a part of that process. Constant tinkering– constantly trying something to have it not work out and then having to rethink my approach– is what drives me in my art production and ultimately my day to day life.
The circus celebrates a “smoke and mirrors” experience where audience witness animals performing tricks that are not part of their nature. What about the circus inspired you to make it the theme of your work? Do you feel that your process of manipulating smoke relates to theme of the circus because it is not in the nature of smoke to create figurative shapes?
After working with the smoke and creating gestural and abstract forms like rings and ribbons, I kept upping the challenge of what I could create. Squiggles are one thing, a representational image is quite another. In the early representational images, I saw the importance of the silhouette in describing the thing but also in describing the thing in space. Then it became a control game, how do I get the smoke to go here but not there? I saw a parallel in what I was trying do similar to training an animal. The trainer must recognize and respect the innate nature of an animal when trying to modify its behavior to achieve a desired outcome. The same is true in working with smoke. The inherent properties of smoke must be respected, then permitted to- and yet discouraged from- acting naturally. I started with diving horses. I related to the idea of a something powerful being out of control but in a controlled environment, like the Atlantic City diving horses– minus the cruelty and sadness. Then came the dancing bears. Minus the cruelty and sadness, the guy tethered to something dangerous yet existing cooperatively was me. As I achieved better control with tonal values and as the technique progressed, so the did the need for a more refined tricks. Not being a huge fan of all things circus, I was apprehensive about using it as imagery. I focused on the act of presenting a convincing trick more than presenting a dramatic scene from a circus. Everyone sees the resulting image and reacts to the content or history, without thinking about what the “trick” involves. There is also a significant parallel between the smoke technique and performing magic. It convincingly presents an impossibility.
How would you describe the stories that inform your artwork?
I am a chronic collector– my studio reflects that. My wife might say hoarder. I prefer a magpie, of sorts. I gather constantly and hold on to what resonates in some way. When a connection is made, that piece gets made or that direction is pursued. My nest is full of connections waiting to happen.
Your work was recently included in the exhibition Circus Pony at the Liminal Art Space in Roanoke. What’s next? What are you currently working on?
I am turning down shows for the foreseeable future and not planning for any new shows for awhile. I am looking forward to just making lots of work without any deadlines. I have so many ideas I need to try, that I need the time to make mistakes and disasters and have time to develop possibilities.