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  • Gregory Kitterle

Smoke as Signal


So I’m going to start out far afield with a Yoruba parable from the table of Ifa divination method. This divination parable warns of the effects of grabbing handfuls of smoke (isn’t that a great image?). In the parable it refers to the seduction of an illusionary nature and its effects on the person seeking advice. With smoke as a re-occurring theme in my work. I’ve wondered at times why this pictorial device interests me so. For a while I thought it was just the pleasure of the challenge of capturing its image accurately but it seems to have taken on wider implications for me. One of the more obvious implications is the trans-denominational use of smoke in ritual practices. It is a fundamental human symbol that crosses so many boundaries in that it symbolizes the transition of matter into spirit. If we continue this metaphor, smoke reminds us that spirit’s natural state is free and can exist without matter but matter might not exist without spirit. It represents the ascension of the immortal spirit as it departs the mortal body and returns to a realm free from the imprisonment in matter. It’s in this concept of ascension that I find there is a tie to the world of painting. I found this tie in the frescos of Fra Angelico, specifically in the decorative elements surrounding the pictorial work. In his book on Angelico Georges Didi Huberman goes deeply into the aspect of where paint becomes spirit. More so paint as spirit. In his writings he speculates that Angelico’s religiously focused technique might be the foreshadowing the more abstract characteristics of modern art. In another of his writings Didi-Huberman, postulates that visual representation has an “underside” in which seemingly intelligible forms lose their clarity and defy rational understanding. Art historians, he goes on to contend, have failed to engage this underside, where images harbor limits and contradictions, because their discipline is based upon the assumption that visual representation is made up of legible signs and lends itself to rational scholarly cognition epitomized in the “science of iconology.”

Addressing the concern of this “science of iconology” the painting Lee Mat goes for Bar Oak, the smoke is an offshoot of some odd experiment by a figure in green (Le Mat of the tarot) and forms part of the s-curve underlying composition. This s-curve design is a compositional element preferred by the late Baroque period also known as Rococo and in some circles came to be synonymous with bad taste. The fire whirls causing curling smoke and not much else. The figure is focused on a mirror with a candle in front, not paying attention to the action at hand. So for me the painting is a parable of empirical experience masquerading as science.

In the fresco Smoke of Disambiguation the ribbon-like smoke obscuring the view is the heaviest visual element in the work.The back story of this work concerns tales of Cappadocian mystics who would build tall platforms and sit on them eschewing food, bathing and the usual earthly distractions. People of that time would search out these holy men for advice but due to the lack of bathing the discourses had a rank nature. The mystics soon employed sweet smelling smoke to carry their prayers to the heavens; also improving the scent of the messengers. Here the smoke offers clarity in obscurity.

In Smoke Rings the smoke becomes a devil-may-care past time where everything seems confidently nonchalant. Yet what elements lurk in the background.

Over time, as I thought more about interrelatedness of the theories, ambiguity became a central concern both in perception and symbol. For me smoke fits that compositional/narrative challenge, as it can be a specter of a cause, smog of a problematic nature and the result of the burning off of detritus. Plus I do enjoy painting it.


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