Everything about “Where There’s Smoke” sounds dubious. Though the show is at the spacious ArtYard in tiny Frenchtown, it still requires a timed ticket. The show hangs on a brutal emotional hook — the death of the artist’s father by colon cancer. Like many modern interactive exhibitions, it feels heavily influenced by point-and-click adventure games, middlebrow memoirs, public airing of family secrets, and the covert thrill of rifling through a stranger’s sock drawer. It also indulges in the most unwelcome practice of modern art shows: creator Lance Weiler asks visitors to fill out reaction questionnaires and hang them by clothespin on a communal wall. In the name of engagement, many artists pop such quizzes on the unsuspecting. Weiler does it several times in the same show.
“Where There’s Smoke,” which runs at the ArtYard until Oct. 1, should not work. But work it does, and brilliantly so. This troubling, rewarding, emotionally exhausting project draws the gallery-goer into a blaze-threatened home, bit by bit, shot by shot, and flame by beckoning flame. It transcends the limitations and clichés of the interactive installation through the depth of Weiler’s pocket-sized world and the uncommon crispness of his execution. It is also enlivened by Robert Weiler, its strange and magnetic protagonist, whose fascination with fire provides the exhibition its moments of flickering illumination and its many burning questions.
Robert Weiler was fascinated by fire. His duties as a Bucks County volunteer fireman put him close to some combustible stuff, and he took advantage of that by photographing blazes. Weiler the Elder preserved his shots on scores of slides, each chronicling a private tragedy in magma orange and midnight black. In “Where There’s Smoke,” some of his most spectacular images are projected on the walls of the ArtYard space. Visit the gallery and you’ll be surrounded by flames — graphic pictures of them, anyway.
Lance Weiler has left boxes and trays of his father’s slides all over the installation, and invites viewers to pick them up and inspect them. Many of these are searing enough that they need no backlight to make an impression. Others are placed in a vertical grid the size of a human that blooms with hot color when approached by a visitor. It feels exactly like dry kindling bursting into flame.
You might wonder whether Robert Weiler had an interest in fire that went beyond the professional. If so, you’re not alone. Lance Weiler does, too. The artist frets about two unexplained blazes from his childhood, including one that torched the family home. Did the artist’s dad fan the flames? Did he strike the match? Weiler turns his audience into detectives, equipping visitors with headphones and searchlights and turning them loose on the family drawers. Travel itineraries, legal documents, View-Masters, strange memos stuffed in envelopes … you’re encouraged to probe it all and decide for yourself whether you’re looking at a clue.
The most compelling circumstantial evidence comes from the slides. Robert Weller photographed flames the way Richard Avedon photographed dancers. Everything is in motion, everything seems forceful, kinetic and dangerous and, above all, everything is disturbingly beautiful. Awe and wonder are visible in his snapshots, but there is very little fear.
Weiler is drawn to the texture and composition of flame — the white-hot columns in the middle of the blaze, the smeared reds and oranges surrounding the fire like an aureola, the firefly-like particles that crackle in the sky as a building is mercilessly consumed. He’s smitten by the mingling of smoke, sky, vapor and shimmering heat-haze.
In “Horsman Factory Fire #2,” taken in 1975, the flames fall on a hapless building like a finger of destruction from the heavens. In #3, from the same series, the air itself seems steam-charged and electrified, and puny firefighters in silhouette struggle to find their footing on a treacherous slope. These slides don’t prove Weller was a pyromaniac, and they certainly don’t mean he burned down the house. But given the duress under which they were shot, they demonstrate deep knowledge of the dynamics of fire, and more than a bit of worshipful affection for it, too.
These portraits of flaming disaster anticipate the cataclysm that falls on the Weiler house years later. Robert Weiler is, we learn, secretive about his cancer diagnosis at first. But once the disease advances, he is tossed into the maelstrom of the American healthcare system without cushioning. He takes his bewildered family with him.
We are told this sad tale by means of a clever storytelling mechanism: Lance Weiler and the ArtYard have rigged up audio cues that play in the headphones of visitors as the arrive at specific points in the gallery. Investigating a ledger on a desk might prompt a reminiscence from the artist’s mother. Packing a suitcase for a hospital stay (you are invited to do this) may be answered by a few gruff words from Robert Weiler himself. Take a sidestep in this emotional minefield and you may be blindsided by a wrenching tale of cancer treatment.
The modular nature of the exhibition means that no two visitors will have the exact same experience. It’s possible, for instance, to leave ArtYard without hearing the devastating story of a summer vacation marred by mishaps. In it, the young Lance Weiler is left to fend for himself at a remote motel in the wilderness, and seriously considers the possibility that his dad may be ditching the family one by one. It’s the key to the show’s themes of abandonment, unreliability and precarity. One of my companions at “Where There’s Smoke” never triggered it.
The dying Robert Weiler responded to his son’s interview questions enthusiastically. Still, it is hard not to wonder what he would have thought about “Where There’s Smoke.” The elder Weiler comes off as eccentric, difficult and insensitive to the immediate needs of his family. Even if the artist never points the finger straight at his dad, he hints heavily that the old man had the soul of an arsonist. Robert Weiler, appreciator of drama that he was, might have smiled and called this showbiz. Or he might have bristled at this characterization.
What is clear, though, is that Lance Weiler is still troubled by the mystery — pained enough to equip gallery-goers with lanterns fit for a spelunker and turn them loose to peek through his closet. He is possessed by the unquenchable curiosity that comes when the person you’re uncertain about is no longer around to answer your questions. That sort of brush fire is a devil to put out.
“Where There’s Smoke” runs at ArtYard in Frenchtown through Oct. 1. Visit artyard.org.
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