Jay McCafferty: Solar Burns, Cirrus Gallery 1975 essay by Andrea Joki
Jay McCafferty joined the roster of artists at Cirrus Gallery in 1975 presenting Solar Burns, an exhibition of twenty works from the artist’s on-going Solar Burns Series. McCafferty’s reductive visual language and unorthodox process aligns with the gallery’s aesthetics cultivated for generations by owner Jean Milant and the gallery’s enduring commitment to supporting Los Angeles artists engaged in conceptually-driven experimental art practices.
Born in 1948 and raised in the Los Angeles port community of San Pedro, McCafferty briefly attended Los Angeles Harbor College followed by Chapman College. He also enrolled in Chapman’s World Campus Afloat, a yearlong voyage on ship that introduced McCafferty to cultures across the Pacific Ocean. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from California State University in Los Angeles and received his MFA from the University of California at Irvine in 1973.
As a graduate student at UC Irvine in the early 1970s, McCafferty was in the company of southern California’s leading artists, writers and curators. Founded in 1965, the relatively new art department had recruited many top talents for academic posts, some of whom included artists Tony de Lap, John McCracken, Vija Celmins and Ed Moses; art historians Alan Solomon and Barbara Rose; and writers Philip Leider (editor-in-chief, Artforum) and John Coplan (writer/editor, Artforum). Fellow students from the time include artists Michael Asher, Chris Burden, Marcia Hafif, Alexis Smith, Barbara T. Smith and Maria Nordman.
In this particular 1970s UC Irvine environment, McCafferty first developed his unorthodox Solar Burns process of which he has remained true to the present day.
A life long resident of Southern California, McCafferty currently splits his time between a home in Santa Barbara and his San Pedro bayside studio that includes a three-story house with an adjacent outdoor workspace and a side yard transformed into a formal garden.
Following a recommendation by Jean Milant, the artist contracted Coy Howard to design the house, an architectural gem located on a residential street running directly along the bay. Its shotgun footprint is long and narrow, yet vertically expansive with open site lines from the first to third floors. The interior space recalls the hull of a ship, a poetic nod to McCafferty’s early educational experience aboard a ship and the industrial port that defines the local environment.
On the drive to McCafferty’s studio, I was struck by the view of the port – the sheer enormity of the operation with endless stacks of containers, ships coming and going, and loading cranes silhouetted against the blue sky. Crossing the threshold into the artist’s studio, one encounters a complete shift in sensory experience. In contrast to the frenetic activity of the industrial neighborhood, the airy and light-filled house feels spare and quiet, a refined space that echoes McCafferty’s reductive artistic aesthetics.
In the brief time spent with McCafferty at his studio, I experienced a heightened awareness of place and time, of nature and the physical surroundings, and sound. I noticed signs of weathering in the scratched surfaces and rust-colored patina of an outdoor steel drafting table where the artist works. I became aware of ambient sounds that tethered the artist’s cloistered setting to its urban and industrial location. I watched McCafferty’s alert and energetic dog keep guard, inserting unbounded life into this carefully edited space. The environment seems a balance of calm and storm, opposites together, as in the controlled chance of the artist’s Solar Burns process, one that reveals with each small burn hole the dual nature of fire.
McCafferty’s first investigations of burns began during his student days at UC Irvine. He recollects identifying his process:
“I had a magnifying glass that I had kept around for a long time that came with a stamp collection kit that my aunt had given me. One day, I took the magnifier outside on my porch and used it to burn a textural grid with sunlight onto a circular sculptural form. I pinned the piece up on my studio wall and it never failed to catch the eyes of my classmates and professors. They helped me recognize that there was something worth exploring in that experiment.”
Some four decades since that early solar burn experiment, McCafferty has stayed remarkably true to a simple idea and process that has yielded artworks of relevance over time. McCafferty’s visual language heeds a post-Minimalist aesthetic. His language adheres to Minimalist principles (seriality, mechanical mark-making, non-objectiveness) put forth by New York-based artists of the 1960s including Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt. Yet, like the hand-drawn lines in the paintings of Agnes Martin, McCafferty’s expressionist burn marks create a space for poetry.
During my visit to his studio, I had the opportunity to view examples of his Solar Burns works from the 1970s through the present. Although the works reveal compositional variations over time, his primary language faithfully remains to be the deliberate accumulation of successive burn holes across the surfaces of large sheets of paper.
Working on a gridded paper, McCafferty often introduces initial fields of color in blue and violet hues with thin washes of paint applied with a brush. Engaged in a process that requires working under the sun, he takes the stained sheet of paper to a specially designed steel-surfaced drafting table set in an outdoor space adjacent to his house. The sheet of paper is secured on the tabletop with magnets, preventing it from being disturbed by the ocean breeze. McCafferty sits at the table and settles in to the tedium of populating the paper with burn hole after burn hole by concentrating the energy of the sun through his hand-held magnifying glass.
Although the artist’s process demands one’s attention to duration and labor, the process also reveals a sense of excitement conjured by the phenomenon of fire. Each small fire resulting in a burn hole is an adventure. And, as Agnes Martin wrote, “The essential feature of adventure is that it is a going forward into unknown territory...This is the attractiveness of art work. It is adventurous, strenuous and joyful.”1
McCafferty’s twenty works included in the 1975 Solar Burns exhibition at Cirrus Gallery illustrate the artist’s exploration of materials and range of surface effects resulting from his disciplined and restrained Solar Burns process. McCafferty presented works on paper, wood and plastic ranging in size from approximately twelve inches square to sixty inches square.
The four large-scale Solar Burns works included in the exhibition, each composed of four separate sheets of paper that have been joined together with adhesive to form a large square, are presented unframed and pinned to the gallery’s walls. Smaller works reveal the artist’s experimentation with different substrates (wood and plastic). Regardless of format and substrate, each work reveals the ebb and flow of the passage of time as the artist harnesses successive moments of combustion.
McCafferty acknowledged that the Solar Burns process deeply captured his imagination. He states, “...it was so direct, the idea of taking sunlight and putting it through a magnifying glass and through a piece of paper or whatever I’m burning; it makes a mark that’s unexplainable. It’s a device for me to literally focus my attention. You can’t do it without being right there – if you are not conscious of what you’re doing, it won’t work.”2
In his large-scale piece, Phoenix, McCafferty allows the grid of quarter-inch graph paper to guide him in making near evenly spaced marks. A sense of order is further reinforced with a secondary grid in the cross seams of the four joined sheets of paper. The successive burn holes are, at times, crisp-edged and tightly packed within the lattice of the grid. Other holes are more widely spaced and reveal ghostly smoke trails, like visual remnants of small gusts of wind.
As in other works, Phoenix reveals a tension between chaos and order. The grid contains a multitude of similar explosive scars resulting from the specific momentary conditions of each burn: wind, humidity, artist’s response time. A few small areas of the paper have completely disintegrated, consumed by the strong appetites of particular flames. The work resonates with a sense of transformation and a literal dematerialization of the art object.
McCafferty exploits scale and materials to draw the viewer’s attention to the range of expression embedded in his process. The large-scale works in the exhibition, including Contradiction and Phoenix, envelop the viewer with allover fields of burn holes and brings one’s attention to the expansive undulating rhythm of progressing time. These works also indicate a direction towards nothingness, with their lace-like delicateness and the smoke and char palette presented in stark contrast to the white box architecture of the gallery.
Smaller-scale works draw the viewer in for closer examination of particular burn holes and the effects of fire on different materials. In an untitled work, McCafferty populates the surface of a twelve-inch square piece of plywood with densely-packed blackened burn marks. Unlike the ephemeral, veil-like burns on paper, this example on wood asserts a feeling of inertia as the material clings to its object-ness. The flamboyant smoke trails and irregular holes in the works on paper are replaced here with a collection of less- volatile and seemingly predictable engagements with fire on the plywood’s surface.
Another small-scale work, Forever Now, engages a viewer in a singular dialogue with smoke trails. The twelve-inch square work on paper is a collection of evenly spaced (about three quarters of an inch apart) somewhat uniform burn holes with wildly divergent carbon trails. The work has an intimacy of a drawing and holds a magic-like presence, as if all of the burn holes and smoke trails came into being at once, in a moment of combustion and swirling wind. One may reason that Forever Now illustrates the artist’s mastery in controlling the frenetic flame, possible shifting the paper or blowing the fire to produce lively and intentional marks.
McCafferty’s Solar Burns works presented at Cirrus Gallery seem without boundary – fields of repeating similar marks that imply a space with no beginning and no end. Yet each successive burn hole also implies the containment of time and labor of the artist. Those small scars placed on the paper and other materials by a determinedly single- minded agent are records of distinct alchemic moments – ones mediated by an artist and fossilized in the physical world.
McCafferty’s engagement with a singular process in his Solar Burns Series, including those presented in this 1975 exhibition and over his lifetime, indicates a commitment to conceptual ideas and personal philosophies that continue to inform his visual language. His works recall ideas of the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who identified fire as the basic element of reality, that all things are in constant flux, and put forth the assumption that “nothing is ever lost but merely changes its form, that the eternal Fire moves with measured pace following the direction of Reason.”3
1. Agnes Martin, “Writings,” catalog, Agnes Martin: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1960- 1989, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1992, p. 19
2. Glenn Phillips, California Video: Artists and Histories, Getty Research Institute, 2008, p. 169
3. Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy, McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 16
Personal interview with the artist, San Pedro, CA, April 2014
Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971, exhibition, Laguna Art Museum, October 2011
Catalog L.A. Birth of an Art Capital 1955-1985, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2006
Cirrus Gallery, exhibition archives and ephemera, Los Angeles