Cara Despain’s exhibition In Memoriam: Carbon Paintings at Utah’s Kimball Art Center confronts the pressing environmental and moral calamities of the American West.
In Memoriam: Carbon Paintings
October 1, 2021–January 2, 2022
Kimball Art Center, Park City, Utah
Awash in a red glow, a series of large, dark canvases encircle the modest gallery space with a sculpture placed at its center. The spectral quality of the room is devised to mimic the amber flames of a fire that has left darkness and destruction in its wake.
Artist Cara Despain, a Salt Lake City native and multidisciplinary artist, has lived and worked in Miami since 2012, yet indelible traces of her western upbringing appear frequently in her art. Her exhibition In Memoriam: Carbon Paintings at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah, references the harrowing impact of fires in the American West, the frequency and devastation of which intensify with each passing year.
The works, all from 2021, are caverns of black sediment with stenciled words placed at their center. The words identify the names of individual fires—Troublesome, Kaibab, and Parleys among them. Elsewhere, Avalanche reminds of the horrific aftermath of such fires.
To achieve their charcoal-like effect, Despain travels throughout the United States to harvest carbon residue from the burnt debris of selected fires. She then seals the carbon with a fixative that renders it safe to exhibit indoors. The sizes of Despain’s canvases correspond to the scale of each fire, just as the vibrancy of the carbon’s black hue relates to the age of the fire.
In each, black layers oscillate between thickness and translucence. The stenciled words float in their center, as if emerging from a cloud of smoke. Sadly, the toxicity wrought by smoke and pollution is prescient in a state plagued by poor air quality.
In the gallery’s center, a section of a white acrylic fence—It Doesn’t Look Like Paradise Anymore—bends inward, charred, and contorted. Despain mimics the effect of a fire’s destruction with a blowtorch, tarnishing the once pristine enamel of the white picket fence, America’s preeminent symbol of middle-class comfort.
In the past few years, the environmental conditions of the American West have become so dire as to strike fear in even the most ardent of non-believers. As the realities of our climate catastrophe become impossible to ignore, Despain’s series reminds us that it’s imperative to reflect not only on the issues confronting us in the present, but also on the human interventions that led us to this point.