Critic’s choice: ‘Rethinking Fire’ sparks questions at the Fresno Art Museum

You can smell this show. Just take a whiff. The unmistakable odor of burned wood — the product of forest fires — is clear the moment you walk into Bryan David Griffith’s accomplished and intriguing “Rethinking Fire” at the Fresno Art Museum. And you know something? It isn’t a bad smell. Is it wrong to think such a thing, with all the misery that wildfires have brought to our state recently? It brings to mind logs on the fire, camping in a tent, grilling meat at a summer barbecue.

Pictured above: Bryan David Griffth’s ‘Rebirth’ at the Fresno Art Museum.

Fire is complicated.

It’s also a primal force that connects to us at some deep molecular level. Knowing how to use it helped ensure our place at the top of the food chain. It’s why we’re building mini-mansions in the forests of Oakhurst instead of gathering berries there.

One of the key themes I picked up from Griffith’s show is this: Wildfires aren’t bad. Or good. They just are. They’re part of the regular cycle of nature. We can’t forget that.

Griffith is a wildfire groupie of sorts. (His bio notes that In 2014, after a wildfire threatened his home and studio, Bryan received a grant to study wildfire in the West and develop new work for the traveling small group exhibition “Fires of Change,” funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.) His fascination with and understanding of the process — not just the firefighting part, but the cycle-of-life part — is what gives the works in this show such depth.

One of my favorite pieces is “Rebirth,” a mixed-media work. Strings of bright-blond aspen leaves spill from above, creating a shimmering ribbon of light and life. Underneath, pitch-black cinders from the Warm Fire site at the Grand Canyon are arranged in an almost completed circle. Griffith explains that young aspens can sprout from the roots of mature trees killed in a fire. Because those baby trees have a head start on other trees in the forest, they out-compete other species that must grow from seed. For a time, then, aspens take over until other, more dominant trees once again assert control.


Until another big fire comes along.

Griffith’s precise artistry and eloquent color palette, all light creams and blacks, give his works a sophistication and elegance. When he talks through his art, you want to listen.

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Does he come right out and say that we shouldn’t be building houses in forests? I feel as if the suggestion is there, but the show isn’t an anti-development diatribe. Still, it makes you think. Human dwellings have only been used for a few thousand years. Forest fires have been around a lot longer than that. I don’t think they’re going anywhere.

Note: If you haven’t yet had a chance to take in this show, you’re running out of time. It closes June 23.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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