Installation Magazine Interview with Rob Tarbell: (Edited)

Your new body of work employs a complex, unusual and sophisticated method of painting with smoke.  How did you develop this technique to achieve this unusual effect?

The smoke technique began around 2005 with a few ideas coming together. After visiting the Sistine Chapel (after its cleaning and restoration), I saw the significance of the accumulation of smoke over time. About the same time I became aware of the self-help technique of burning sentimental things to remove their emotional connection or physical burden. After 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? The result led me down the path that I am on now.

How do you tame such a fragile medium?

The work is created by controlling the accumulation of smoke on the paper surface. It is an additive process and results in a mark that my hand or a brush cannot make.  It is a different approach 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 trial and error, as expensive as it is, has been rewarding. I never know what I am going to get – if anything – but that leads to surprises. It’s comical to think back about its beginnings. I started with a crude set up in a metal garage. I was holding the paper above the flame, while holding my breath. The setup developed around the idea that heat rises and the smoke has a flow to it and controlling the flow is key.

Figuring out how not to get burned was tricky.  Now, I work in a room 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.

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.

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 many. 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.

 Rob Tarbell is represented by the Claire Oliver Gallery in NYC. 

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(Courtesy of Installation Magazine)