Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire: The Smoke Portraits of Robert Tarbell

Artwork © Robert Tarbell/Clair Oliver Gallery. Photographed by John Tilley.

Something strangely magical is happening in Robert Tarbell’s new show, called “This Much is True,” on view at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Chelsea.  Whether this particular magic is of the good or evil variety?  Well, it’s hard to say.

Artwork © Robert Tarbell/Clair Oliver Gallery. Photographed by John Tilley.

Taking full advantage of the split level gallery, the artist opens with an intriguing sculptural installation of smooth silver victrola horns, one of these fitted with a spotlight that points to an 18th-century print in a perfect circle, which, upon closer inspection, is of the infamous Mary Toft, who claimed to have given birth to twelve rabbits in 1726.

The collection contains more sculpture components: cryptic, eyeless porcelain rabbits that resemble the nightmarish creature from the film Donnie Darko, some of them appearing a bit charred around the edges.  These are surrounded by the bulk of the collection, pieces that hover away from the wall in a delicate organization, smokey portraits rendered in gray on porcelain.  Details of the faces pop out in places while vanishing into the smoke in others, eyes gaze out defiantly through their own wispy renderings.  While this may sound rather macabre, the effect is a mysterious lightness, a playful peekaboo with the subjects, who appear at times triumphant, at others indifferent, their eyes meeting ours poignantly or else glancing away with the coyness of a film noir character.  

Artwork © Robert Tarbell/Clair Oliver Gallery. Photographed by John Tilley.

While trying to photograph the piece I felt was the strongest, I asked a pair of onlookers if they would mind moving for a moment so I could get a picture – I apologized by insisting that this picture was clearly the best (I think because the face is a solid black, making it bolder than the rest and closer to a silhouette or shadow, the neck of the figure long and elegant, and only the eye visible as she glances over her shoulder as she emerges from the smoke), and I quickly found out that the man I’d asked to move was the artist himself. 

He attempted to explain to me the process by which he created the pieces, by burning old film negatives to create the perfect smoke, which would be captured on the porcelain which he mounted directly above the smoke, but I suspect he wouldn’t want me to understand how he’d done it anyway – wondering exactly how these pictures were accomplished, rendered in actual smoke, is half the fun.

“It became a physical manifestation of impure thoughts.”

He explained to me the story of Mary Toft, who became fixated with owning a rabbit,  “It became a physical manifestation of impure thoughts,” he explained.  To think a thing is to create it, especially in the 1700s.  The story changed depending on whose point of view it was told from.  “I’m interested in the process of change, of these shifting perspectives.” he said.  “And the idea of purity, we think of porcelain as pure and smoke as dirty, but carbon is pure, it’s used to filter poisons.”  Fire, to be sure, is the ultimate process of purification.  


Robert Tarbell: This Much Is True

Claire Oliver Gallery 

513 W 26th St,

New York, NY 10001

May 18- June 24 2017

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