The fascinating ignition of gunpowder – the massive, immediate release of energy – is conjured up when the smell hits you from one of Steve Woodbury’s linen art canvasses.
Woodbury paints gunpowder of varying kinds onto materials including linen, paper and foam, and ignites them in a process that controls the release of energy – creating something new as it destroys.
Woodbury calls this explosive process the “ultimate Zen moment” – producing new surface colours but also infusing colours into whatever the canvas is.
“It’s like alchemy,” he said.
“I create the creation that creates the destruction.”
Woodbury said his work went back to the roots and practice of calligraphy.
“In the beginning, calligraphy was the transference of information. Then religion came into it, so the more beautiful the writing, the more converts you’d have,” he said.
“When Zen came into it, and it moved to Japan, they moved away from Chinese characters and the gesture [in the writing] became more important.”
And in many of his works, Woodbury incorporates the movement of fingers over a standard computer keyboard format, known as QWERTY, via what he calls “squiggles”, showing where the fingers move above the keys.
“Calligraphy has gone from ‘information transfer’ to ‘gesture’. I was looking for modern information transfer, and that’s why I use the QWERTY lines, the movements that your fingers make on a QWERTY keyboard, so each of those squiggles in my paintings is modern information transfer,” he said.
“I was looking for an ancient material to go with that. And I thought an ancient material that came from China was gunpowder.
“All my work is about duality, so I thought that gunpowder was a nice one, because it was invented as a medicine, but known more for destruction.”
Woodbury said he did his first gunpowder art in his primary school days, when fireworks were freely available.
His choice of gunpowder has meant he had to develop skills at taking the detail out of his work, so he always had a natural affinity with calligraphers, where the gesture is critical.
“With the gunpowder, I actually write on words from ancient texts, like from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and then with the squiggles, that is the QWERTY line,” he said.
Weights and boards are used to create different pressure spots on the powdered linen to create different effects.
Different propellants are used, with different burning rates for pre-determined effects.
“What is a real buzz with the power of ignited gunpowder is controlling that,” he said.
“With gunpowder, I like the ephemeral thing, changing states, all that thing about change.”
He said people are naturally attracted to fire, but he had a warning.
“With the wrong powder, you can end up with confetti,” he said.
Woodbury said some of the parts of his works can result in an infusion of colours in material like linen – and not just on the surface.
“It’s quite a destructive thing if you use it incorrectly. It’s all done under controlled, supervised conditions,” he said.
Other artists have used gunpowder, and a few still do.
Australian artist Pro Hart used a cannon to fire paint onto his canvasses, and Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang attracts a big budget for his public gunpowder art.
“There were artists in the sixties like Ed Ruscha, who was using blood and gunpowder. He’s kind of forgotten,” he said.
“Cai Guo-Qiang has a lot of resources behind him, and his concept gets bigger and bigger, and from a Chinese perspective the gunpowder makes sense.
“I am not a Chinese artist, but I have a natural affinity with that. I love his work, but I don’t have the budget to do it to the scale he does it.
“When it gets down to it, I just love the physicality of it, And when you walk into a room with the [my] art works, you can still smell it, and also from the larger-than-life size of the works.”
Woodbury’s current exhibition at the Henry Jones Arts Hotel in Hobart is a prelude to an exhibition later this year in France on the western front, where he will show new gunpowder works and poetry, combined with a personal pilgrimage to places where distant relatives died.
“My relatives fought in WWI, and one got gassed twice and shot once and got a military medal, and another was pretty much vaporised,” he said.
“I think it is fitting to take the gunpowder paintings on the 100th anniversary of the big battles that involved Australia.”