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Art of Darkness

Painter Susan Crile takes on the oil-field infernos of Kuwait

The modern world at war is not a place to live. The "smallness" of human beings in a time of war bespeaks the meaninglessness of human life. This collapse, this nothingness, this sense of the utter irrelevance of humanity is powerfully conveyed in Susan Crile's series "The Fires of War" -- four large-scale paintings of thickly encrusted oil and pumice on canvas and 20 mixed-media works on paper -- which depicts the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. As the defeated Iraqi forces retreated from Kuwait they set more than 600 oil wells on fire, setting in motion an ecological disaster of immense proportions. Crile, a New York-based artist with an established reputation as a painter of abstract pastorals, felt compelled to record the disaster firsthand in an effort to counter the quick dissociation and relative indifference with which it was met.

As you enter Crile's exhibition of paintings and drawings at Blaffer Gallery, you feel an eerie sensation of being drawn into the Inferno. The smoke in the paintings suggests the fires of hell. Again and again, you are pulled toward the blindingly hot and fiery light -- with its promise of transfiguration and transcendence -- but are left with foreboding darkness, the dominant tone.

Crile manages optical effects of almost painful intensity -- red-hot fires with snaking lava rivers look like molten metal poured from a smelting vessel, or like an underwater volcanic eruption in which a sparkling cascade of lava produces myriad bubbles rising to the surface. Aiming to engage the mind and spirit, Crile brings the viewer to a state of awareness that will permit no evasion. A tornado-shaped plume, glowing deep yellow, rises full-bodied from a lake of oil and fulminates sulfur, as if setting the soul on fire. The paintings evoke the spiritual urgency of William Blake's visionary heavens or of J.M.W. Turner's romanticized view of the elements. Vast flames, gusts, explosions of fire, clouds of smoke, a ground alive with burning embers, a sky so dark the sun is nearly obscured -- the works radiate the sinister beauty of fate's terrible indifference. The feeling is both alluring and terrifying.

More than any conflict before it, the Gulf War was made for television. Viewers could follow military preparations and the war itself, virtually in real time. Reduced to the size of a TV screen, the events in the Persian Gulf became one of many televised dramas. For Crile, public indifference to the environmental cataclysm posed an aesthetic challenge: to represent the oil-well fires in a way that would be more intense and compelling than the thousands of televised images and newspaper photographs that had already been circulated. After months of finagling, Crile obtained a visa to enter Kuwait and permission to witness the purgatory, which she regarded as "a metaphor for the disruption of the late 20th century, the strange horror and fascination we are chronically subjected to."

With the aid of Boots and Coots, the Houston-based international firefighting company, and the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., Crile entered the oil fields in July 1991. The noise was deafening, and around the burning wells ground temperatures reached 3,000 degrees. Flames rose 200 feet in the air and the smoke from the burning oil obscured the sun. Crile was the only woman for miles; her companions were skilled firefighters from the American West ("modern-day cowboys," she calls them).

Crile spent ten days in the fields, forced to work wearing a respirator. She took more than 1,000 slides to use as source material. She commented on the experience before her opening at Blaffer: "I tried to make drawings on site, but the dripping oil splattered across my sketch pads. Our senses were under constant assault. Day was night, oil rained from the sky and the tar stuck to your shoes, should you dare to set foot in it for fear of land mines. There were lakes of oil -- sometimes burning, sometimes not -- as far as the eye could see. The experience was a cross between The Inferno, Mad Max and Alice in Wonderland."

In Conflagration: Oil and Fire, the pools of oil give such perfect reflections that ground and horizon blend together. The fire burns in a V-shape, which is mirrored by the glistening surface to form a jagged mouth, the very jaws of hell. The centerpiece of the show, however, is Crile's 40-foot The Fire Next Time, which seemingly beckons a viewer to tread the desert surface itself, sucking him into the charred landscape. The painting is comprised of five panels, each showing different vantage points and shifts in scale to confound people's perceptual expectations. In the central panel, an explosive force of flame spills out across the landscape toward a viewer. Flanking panels offer images that range from softly scumbled purple skies to awesome pillars of smoke and delicate, almost feathery expanses of fire. Linking the entirety is the blackened landscape, which observers experience as if their faces were pushed close to its pumiced earth but, at the same time, as if they had been removed and stood at a distance.

Crile knows that beauty can expand our consciousness by presenting difficult subjects in exquisite formats. Her dangerous use of beauty makes beauty sensual and exciting, rather than merely comforting. This is intuitive painting, with full knowledge of the possibilities inherent in paint. Accordingly, Crile provides substantial pigment under rich glaze, as well as varied brushwork executed in paint thinned down to the consistency of ink or loosely applied in staccato-like strokes. Crile's glowing orbs owe something to Mark Rothko's presentation of ambivalent light, both dark and glowing, muted and intense, as well as his contradictory treatment of space, both airy and constraining. Similarly, Crile often places her enigmatic shapes in an ambient fluid that at first appears penetrable but on closer examination is restricting, even claustrophobic.

Part of what makes Crile's series so compelling is the severity of the landscape itself. The desert is a place, in both mythology and reality, that fully tests the heart, the soul and the spirit. The great saints and hermits found solace in the desert. And yet, if they believed that the desert is "where God is and man is not," they also believed that the desert is where the Devil and the gods of the underworld reside. The desert has always provided rich material for literature and the visual arts, from the Bible to science-fiction films, because it epitomizes the extremes of the human condition, the fragility of human existence. Crile's paintings bear witness to a world that cannot be saved, its air darkened and made noxious, a land where natural resources have been poisoned and where acts of violence portray cultures gone berserk. The landscape has become a laboratory in which scientists and the military experiment with the powers of the universe -- chemical, biological and nuclear -- leading to dangerous creations impossible to control. While Crile's paintings and drawings of the Kuwaiti disaster point a finger directly at military abuse of the environment, their seductive, terrible beauty also engages people who might otherwise look away. They aim to interpret unsettling truths, even sound an alarm. The beauty of Crile's endeavors, then, stems from a courageous affirmation of life that subversively brings us face to face with our besieged world.

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