In September 2017 a fire raged through the La Tuna Canyon, destroying more than 7,000 hectares of California’s Verdugo Mountains. It was the largest wildfire to break out within Los Angeles city limits in more than 50 years, with the flames engulfing several houses and threatening many more. One of those houses belonged to Kevin Cooley, a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice investigates the interaction between nature’s elemental forces and human behaviour through photography, video and performance. “Staying long after it was safe to do so in order to make these photographs, I felt certain my house would burn to the ground,” Kevin says. “Lucky, it was spared thanks to LA City and LA County firefighters who extinguished the blaze just yards away from my property.” The trauma of the fire started Kevin’s photographic obsession that has resulted in ongoing project Still Burning, which is currently on show at the Kopeikin Gallery in LA until 7 April.
“My practice is a quest to better understand human connection to nature,” explains Kevin. “I investigate elements of nature in the Classic sense – earth, wind, water, air, and ether – with projects that, among others, respond to the power of earthquakes in the Pacific Ring of Fire, contemplate the impact of California wildfires, and examine the vastness of Los Angeles water supply system.” Kevin has also been working with fire as representation of political smokescreens and environmental degradation, in response to the current political climate in the US. “This systems-based inquiry became very personal after the La Tuna Fire nearly destroyed my house and entire photographic archive. This lead to a desire to create more directly human-centric and personal projects.”
The body of work that makes up Still Burning varies from landscapes of the glowing La Tuna Canyon fire and images of its aftermath (including the scorched embers of a secret porn cache stashed in the woods) to studio shots where Kevin has engulfed floral bouquets in plumes of coloured smoke. Despite its destructive potential, the fire looks sensual and gorgeous, depicted in pretty pastel hues. “My photographs have always been about aestheticising our relationship to nature, in an attempt to highlight that no matter what we do to alter our planet, for better or for worse, nature will ultimately be in control,” says Kevin. “I usually photograph at sunset or dusk to make the images as striking and memorable as possible, and to give nature the awe-inspiring impact it deserves.”
Just as a wildfire is tough to extinguish, Kevin’s obsession shows no sign of abating. His next fire-related project is a collaboration with an eccentric pyrotechnist in an unorthodox science experiment. This multidisciplinary project includes an attempt to divine lighting by launching tethered rockets into electrical storms and making ’volcanos’ with underground eruptions using surplus military explosives.
“I wasn’t sure how to process the wildfire, and it impacts on me and my family, without photography and, while not the sole purpose by any means, this project has most certainly been cathartic,” says Kevin. “If you ask my wife, she would say I put myself at risk of peril in order to capture some of these images. While that may be true, I can’t imagine it any other way.”
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