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The Fine Art of Fireworks

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Judy Chicago, "A Butterfly for Pomona," 2012. © Judy Chicago. Fireworks and flares performance at Pomona College in Claremont, CA as part of Getty PST Performance Festival. | Photos: Donald Woodman. © 2015 Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Scientifically speaking, a firework is a missile that's calibrated to detonate with spectacular visual effect. However, describing it as such is rather like calling the "Mona Lisa" a matter of paint on wood. More than the sum of its parts, a firework is also an explosion of wonder, a marker of collective celebration, a mini-pantomime of wars declared and won, and a dopamine-inducing metaphor for union accomplished.

Nowhere is this more evident than when North America observes its Declaration of Independence with, as John Adams predicted, "Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other." But triumph and jubilation are just two of the fireworks' affect layers. After the blazing peonies of light and color, the smoke arrives, trailing possibilities of pathos and loss.

Like Lisa's enigmatic smile, pyrotechnics can evoke a range of emotional, intellectual and associative responses. To celebrate America's 1776 liberation from British monarchy (and an expat's continuing hope for a British republic), let's consider four SoCal-based (or related) visual artists who've worked with their complex palette.

Kenneth Anger, The single firework that appears in "Fireworks," 1947. | Photo: gif by jadams77, Photobucket.
Kenneth Anger, The single firework that appears in "Fireworks," 1947. | Photo: gif by jadams77/Photobucket.

Kenneth Anger, the self-described "most monstrous moviemaker in the underground," shot his first film, "Fireworks" (1947), at his parents' Santa Monica home, when he was just 20 years old.

The 14-minute silent, black-and-white movie is a homoerotic dream sequence in which the protagonist (Anger) simultaneously goes in search of a light for his cigarette and cruises white-uniformed sailors for the "light" of sexual fulfillment. Having been beaten by chain-wielding sailors and anointed by flowing milk, his illumination arrives in the form of a muscular seaman, who opens his pants to expose a roman candle, which ignites in a shower of sparks.

When Anger made "Fireworks," homosexuality was forbidden on screen and illegal off (consensual adult sodomy and oral copulation were crimes in California until 1975); and a new puritanism had limited even heterosexual film kisses to just three seconds of lip contact.

Restricted to euphemisms, filmmakers relied on trains, tunnels, rolling surf and of course fireworks to suggest orgasmic ecstasy. By turning the firework back into an ejaculating penis, Anger at once embraces the euphemism and strips it away, like the child who points out the emperor's nakedness.

Influenced by both the emerging gay porn film industry and by L.A.'s 1944 Zoot Suit Riots -- when gangs of uniformed servicemen attacked and stripped young Latinos -- "Fireworks" was "all I have to say about being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July," said Anger.

In the mid-1960s, when formalism held the art world in thrall and content was banished, it was not so much the fireworks' eruption that fascinated Judy Chicago, as it was their rolling clouds of smoke. They "provided a liberation from formal structure," she said in a recent Guardian interview.

Chicago had been making brightly colored minimalist artworks, which sounds like a contradiction in terms but was an effort to combine formal concerns and emotional expression, with the colors intended to convey emotion. The artist quickly reached the expressive limits of that tactic however, and by 1968 had begun to experiment with pyrotechnics.

Exploring "openly female-centered art," Chicago's "Atmospheres" series (1968-1974) used fireworks and their billowing, dissipating smoke to free color from its shape anchors, and "feminize and soften the environment."

While the artist's subsequent socio-political work overshadowed her "Atmospheres," the series has recently been given more prominence by two public firework displays: "A Butterfly for Pomona" (2012) and "A Butterfly for Brooklyn" (2014).

In comparison to the intimate reveries suggested by photographs like this from the
"Atmospheres" series, the newer displays are spectacular. Re-engagements rather than re-enactments, Chicago took the genital-referencing butterfly imagery that she used most famously in "The Dinner Party" (1974-9), and made it (with some anatomical improbability) "appear to levitate, swirl, and move."

Cai Guo-Qiang: "Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 9, Encountering the Others," Kassel, Germany, June, 1992. Gunpowder (90 kg), fuse (1,300 m), seismograph with nine sensors, electroencephalograph, and electrocardiograph. | Photographs by Masanobu Moriyama, courtesy of Cai Studio.
Cai Guo-Qiang: "Mystery Circle: Explosion Event for The Museum of Contemporary Art," Los Angeles, 2012. Gunpowder fuse, 40,000 mini rockets, 100 girandolas, 62 Tourbillon Mines | Photographs by Joshua White/JWPictures.com, courtesy of Cai Studio.

Strictly speaking, internationally active artist Cai Guo-Qiang has only a tenuous relationship to SoCal, he was born in China and lives in New York. But considering the sheer scale of "Mystery Circle," the "explosion event" that opened his 2012 solo exhibition at MOCA, how can we possibly leave him out?

Cai began working with pyrotechnics in the 1980s, when, as a Shanghai stage design student, he used gunpowder to sear designs into canvas. Moving to a bigger stage in the 1990s, his ongoing "Projects for Extraterrestrials" series features explosions so large they are meant to be visible from space. "Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters" (1993), for example, used 600 kilograms of gunpowder to draw a blazing line from the eponymous Wall into the Gobi desert.

More recently the artist has incorporated figuration in his work: for example, his own footprints "walked" across Beijing's night sky at the spectacular opening of the 2008 Olympics as the "Footprints of History." But the imaginary figure that "Mystery Circle" burnt into the wall of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary represents his first "portrait" of an alien.

Jack Goldstein: "Untitled," 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 132 in. | Image courtesy © The Estate of Jack Goldstein.
Jack Goldstein: "Untitled," 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 132 in. | Image: Courtesy © The Estate of Jack Goldstein.

Although the extraterrestrial audience has yet to comment, the artist's perception of his work as "a dialogue between unseen powers" would likely have struck a chord with shell maker Bill Withrow, for whom fireworks reveal "large forces, stronger than we could ever be, yet beautiful in their effects." Artist Jack Goldstein may well have needed some persuasion on the topic, however: although his fiercely elegant painted universe is full of "otherness," it is drained of "others."

A graduate of both Chouinard and CalArts, Goldstein was an avant-garde filmmaker who turned to painting in the 1980s. His large-scale airbrushed works, which were based on found photographs and painted by assistants, depict explosive moments -- lightning storms, air raids, firework blossoms -- in polished, high contrast.

Recalling both stills from a disaster movie climax and John Martin's early 19th century paintings of cataclysmic events, Goldstein's images are concerned with spectacle and the sublime, or the awe-inspiring immensity of natural (or supernatural) force, and its depiction in contemporary culture.

But unlike Martin's paintings and the movie scenes they've influenced, which both work hard to overwhelm the viewer in sensation, Goldstein's curiously affectless pictures keep their distance. With their "untouched by human hand" sheen and déjà vu imagery, these paintings insist upon spectatorship, not participation. And really, that's the point. The spectacle is void.

Jack Goldstein: "The Jump," 1978. © Estate of Jack Goldstein.
Jack Goldstein: "The Jump," 1978. © Estate of Jack Goldstein.   

When scholar John Armitage and painter Joy Garnett describe Goldstein's work as an example of the "American apocalyptic sublime," they're referring to a hypothesis about contemporary visual culture that's concerned with "that vacuum between what is expected and what is perceived." You can read all about it here, but I think they mean something like the feeling that pervaded my first firework display experience.

Surrounded by an oohing-and-aahing crowd of similarly glow-sticked tweens, I wasn't so much unmoved as disconnected. From a situationist perspective, this is the moment when spectacle fractures and active participation becomes possible. But, with 12-year-old intensity, I just brooded: "I'm not happy. What's wrong with me?"

Orgasm metaphor, penis euphemism, telephone line to E.T. or catapult to existential crisis: whatever a firework may mean to you, just know you're not alone. Long live the spectacle.

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