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Where There's Fire

"Smoked" examines the difference between art and nature.

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When fire is applied to paper, bad things are usually happening. Not so in "Smoked," the University of Richmond's show at the Lora Robbins Gallery, which features the work of three artists: John Cage, Ray Kass and Stephen Addiss.

All the pieces in this show started off as dampened sheets of paper, exposed to a source of fire, which leaves each sheet with an unpredictable array of sensuous markings — the imprint of burning hay, soft browns, dark grays and whispers of smoke. The artists' studies of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy brought them together to collaborate with this process at various times in their careers.

Addiss, a professor of art history at UR, combines the art of Japanese calligraphy with the smoked paper, integrating the broad strokes of ink with the softness of the smoke. These objects are beautiful and delicate, stemming from a practice of meditation more than one of art-making.

Kass' "Tondo Polyptychs" feature smoked paper mounted to interlocking panels, which create abstract compositions in which a circular form emerges as the dominant figure. Kass, a professor of art at Virginia Tech, uses the smoked paper as a drawing to which washes of color are applied — often enhancing, but on occasion obliterating, the soft burn marks underneath.

Cage, best known as an avant-garde composer whose work with chance operations led to some of the most hated and celebrated music of the 20th century, uses the uncontrollable nature of burning paper to its fullest. Cage's works are often the most subtle in the show, with very few additions by the artist, who preferred to remove his hand from the making of the work. Cage's works have great presence because, in order to make them, he had to relinquish control. In doing so, he allowed nature to come to the forefront as the dominant creative force.

At times, you can feel overwhelmed by all of the brown and beige in the show, from the scorch marks to the wood frames to the off-white papers. The exhibition asks the viewer to look beyond technique as the theme of the show to the three artists who saw the uncontrollable nature of fire as a way to impart this work with a characteristic unlike any that could be created by human hands. It's one that explores both meditation and creation, and the balance between art depicting nature and art becoming nature. S

"Smoked: Works By John Cage, Ray Kass, and Stephen Addiss" runs through Dec. 17 at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design From Nature at the University of Richmond.

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