Essays

An Excerpt from ‘On Fire,’ Artists’ Tales of Devastating Studio Blazes

Brendan Fowler, "Recording Deposition for Furniture Factory Studio Fire Lawsuit with Ducks Motif" (2015), polyester, rayon (industrial embroidery), inkjet print on polyester, acrylic on canvas with aluminum stretchers, 60 x 80 in (courtesy of the artist and Richard Telles, Los Angeles)
Brendan Fowler, “Recording Deposition for Furniture Factory Studio Fire Lawsuit with Ducks Motif” (2015), polyester, rayon (industrial embroidery), inkjet print on polyester, acrylic on canvas with aluminum stretchers, 60 x 80 in (courtesy of the artist and Richard Telles, Los Angeles)

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from On Fire, Jonathan Griffin’s new book, in which 10 contemporary artists recount fires that consumed all or part of their studios, and how they picked up the pieces afterward. The book is available now from Paper Monument. On Friday, May 6, Rachel Uffner Gallery (170 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) will host a reading in celebration of the book at 6pm.

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“My interest in participating in this book you’re about to make,” Brendan Fowler tells me, “is that I think it will be a document that would have been useful to me before I’d had my fire. Because,” he continues, after a short pause, “it’s not like it’s not going to happen anymore.”

Brendan was the first artist I knew well who had suffered a studio fire and who was open to reflecting on the event’s significance. A hyperactive and likable figure who enthusiastically peppers his speech with skater argot like “psyched” and “amped to shred,” he is also insightful and broadly connective in his thinking. He knows a lot of people and quickly accumulated a trove of sympathetically intended studio-fire stories when the violent blaze in 2011 gutted the studio that he shared with Matthew Chambers.

The ambition to be useful, Fowler says, is what motivates him in all the things he makes, from wall-mounted artworks to blank, freestanding walls (themselves artworks) on which other artists may hang their work; from music (released under the name BARR between 2004 and 2008) to the record label he now runs, DM8H943, to the clothing label he has started called Election Reform!, which encloses information about U.S. electoral reform with every garment. He hopes that everything can be as useful—life-savingly so, he says—as music was to him when growing up, isolated, in rural Maryland.

So, I ask him, what do you wish you’d known before your fire? “Insurance,” he responds without hesitation. “I wish we’d had proper insurance.” For Fowler and Chambers, this had been the first time that either of them had handled the lease on a nonresidential space—a light-industrial building that they found themselves, and which they subdivided and sublet to a couple of other artists. Brendan had only recently quit his day job as a magazine editor; Matt, he says, had “gone pro” slightly earlier. Renting a building like this was a very different kind of legal transaction from renting an apartment. The landlord was obliged to ensure only that his renters had third-party liability insurance, but beyond that they were under no compunction to cover themselves in any way.

“It feels pretty stupid in hindsight,” Fowler says. But how many artists choose to—or can even afford to—insure the contents of their studios properly? Very few, I would guess. Most young artists I know do not even have health insurance, and given the choice between protecting my health and my property, I know where my own priorities would lie. Insurance can be pretty vague, too, as Fowler points out. No matter how much money one spends on it, there is always an element of risk, a limit to the coverage. If you were weighing the likelihood of a catastrophe that incinerates your entire studio and everything in it, you might well decide to roll the dice, push the idea to the back of your mind, and carry on painting.

It took three and a half years for Fowler and Chambers’s lawsuit to be settled. Five other parties were involved, including their neighbors and the adjacent furniture factory in which the fire started. Everyone was desperately trying to claw back some of their losses by suing each other. The process was so distressing and consuming, Brendan says, that if he’d known, at the outset, how disproportionately little money he would recoup, and how painful it would be, he would have seriously considered walking away.

But because they had no insurance, the one thing the pair could not do was walk away. That would have looked, from a legal standpoint, like an admission of guilt. They were obliged to countersue, simply in order to maintain their own innocence.

The Glendale Fire Department is so beleaguered that their investigator operates from an office in a local high school. He abandoned his investigation halfway through, without conclusion, which Brendan was told was not uncommon. But it was especially surprising given that the furniture factory’s surveillance footage, which was later submitted in evidence, showed the fire actually starting: in an area of the building approximately six by six feet, in which a refrigerator with faulty wiring was located near aerosols and solvent-soaked rags. “It was basically a bomb,” says Brendan.

“Once you have a studio fire caused by a furniture factory burning down,” he says, “you hear a lot of stories about furniture factories burning down. Furniture factories burn down all the time. Because they’re full of wood and solvents and aerosols and sawdust. Four of the most combustible things.”

Also, the furniture company was called Hot House. “Unbelievably unfortunate,” even though Brendan goes on to explain that it’s actually spelled Haute House. But throughout the proceedings, everyone involved pronounced it “hot.” The Hot House Fire.

 

Fowler was fortunate in that he had had a solo show at his gallery in New York only three months previously, so there was little work in his studio when the fire happened, except for some early pieces that he had held back for his personal collection. Chambers lost eighty paintings, the majority of them unsold. The bulk of what Fowler lost was tools. He had accumulated a lot of things: power tools, hand tools, electronics, furniture, cameras, musical instruments. The most significant item was the “humungous” Epson inkjet printer that he and his wife had recently acquired at the cost of several thousand dollars, and which became stuck in a doorway when Chambers and Kennedy tried to drag it out of the building. That, along with an inventory of other items, was melted by the heat. A stockpile of materials like wood and Plexiglas, which he had not yet turned into art, were also destroyed. His losses amounted to about $250,000. Chambers’s lost paintings were valued at nearly a million.

The day after the fire, Joel Mesler—who was then the primary dealer for both Fowler and Chambers—flew out to Los Angeles from New York to help his artists. He put them in touch with a lawyer whom he knew through his brother, and whom Brendan describes as both “cool” and “rogue.” His “friendsand- family rate” consisted of a 30 percent cut of the eventual settlement—3 percent less than the one third cut that most lawyers would take, Brendan notes—and no retainer. He advised the pair that, without insurance, the best course of action was for them to countersue the other parties for their share of the eventual insurance payout.

The suit consisted of six parties: Fowler and Chambers; their landlord; the furniture company (hereinafter Hot House); Hot House’s landlord, which was, improbably, Forest Lawn Cemetery; a clothing manufacturer, who lost around a million dollars’ worth of smoke-damaged fabric; and the major drinking straw distributors in Southern California, Diamond Straw, who lost all their stock, purportedly causing a straw shortage in the region for a week.

These parties were all then represented by their insurance companies, who took over the suits. All except the uninsured artists. At one point, says Fowler, it was he and Chambers versus State Farm Insurance, Nationwide Insurance, Liberty Mutual Insurance—all the insurance companies’ legal teams fighting to win back their losses. The total combined claims added up to $7 million. When Hot House’s insurance company was finally unable to refute their client’s culpability any longer, they agreed to pay the full value of the policy and split it between the other five parties proportionally. Hot House was insured for only three million dollars.

At one point, at the beginning of the proceedings, Fowler admits that he and Chambers thought they might actually make money from the claim. After the three million was split five ways, and the lawyer was paid his share, and the two other artists in the building were compensated for their losses (which, in the case of the illustrator Jamal Griswold, included a career’s worth of drawings), there was not a lot left compared with the savings that he had burned through over the previous three years as he replenished a new studio and bought another printer. “Well, I guess neither of us are going to get a house,” Brendan remembers thinking.

 

In the deposition, the artists were called upon, separately, to give their versions of events; Fowler’s testimony lasted seven and a half hours. In an office building in Irvine, lawyers from the five insurance companies, plus the artists’ lawyer, convened with a court reporter and a videographer who recorded the proceedings. Chambers went first and afterwards warned Fowler that it would be tough. It was the other lawyers’ jobs—particularly the Hot House lawyer’s, whose client was looking increasingly at fault— to discredit the testimony of the two artists, “just trying to poke holes, to get me to fuck up, to nickel and dime me down,” Fowler says. Frequently, the exchanges verged on the ridiculous.

“At one point,” he says, “we’re basically explaining the minutiae of what the job of being a contemporary artist is.” One of the line items in Fowler’s claim was for several boxes of unsold CDs, a live recording of his musical and spoken word performance. “Why are these boxes of CDs listed here?” Fowler recalls the lawyer asking. “Well, because I used to do this performance, which was a large component of my practice,” he answered. The lawyer shot back, “What does the performance have to do with anything?” “Well, it’s performance art.” “What’s performance art?” And for the next twenty minutes, Fowler did his best to define performance art, to outline its history and professional milieu. At the end, the lawyer is curious: “How is performance art monetized?” Fowler responds, “Well, not very well, so that’s where the CDs came in!”

After four or five hours, one of the lawyers asked Fowler why he had been taking photographs throughout the proceedings. “Haven’t you figured out yet that this is my job?” replied Fowler. “Is it illegal?” The lawyer said he didn’t know. “Well, I’m going to keep taking pictures then.” Fowler used one of those pictures, inkjet printed twice onto polyester fabric and overstitched with a cheery duck pattern, in a work titled Recording Deposition for Furniture Factory Studio Fire Lawsuit with Ducks Motif (2015). A video camera, mounted on a tripod, glares towards the viewer at the center of each photograph.

 

Brendan had been having dinner with his friend the artist Torbjørn Rødland when he received the call from his studio-mate. Surprised that the phone-shy Chambers would call him at all (“Matt does not participate with the telephone,” he observes), he nevertheless declined the call, out of politeness to his companion. When Chambers called a second time, Brendan assumed it was a butt-dial. When he called a third time, Brendan apologized and told Rødland that he’d better answer it, that Matt would only call him three times if the studio was on fire. He actually said that.

Rødland was even skeptical after Chambers confirmed that yes, indeed, the studio was burning down. But then the pair bumped into some friends outside the restaurant who had just detoured around road closures due to a huge blaze in the Atwater area. “That’s your studio?” they asked, concerned. When Fowler and Rødland got a few blocks from the studio, they found the road taped off, so they parked and walked the rest of the way. They found Alexander Wolff and Andrew Kennedy standing dazed in the road, covered in soot. For the next six hours, together they watched the building burn.

About a week later, after talking to lawyers and the fire investigator and after sorting through the wreckage trying to document the remains of everything they had lost, Fowler ventured out to an opening at a gallery in Chinatown. Everyone in the Los Angeles art community seemed to have heard about the disaster. An artist Fowler knew, a former studio-mate, came up to him and offered his commiserations. “Look, man, you’re gonna be OK,” Fowler remembers him saying. “Just whatever you do, don’t make art about it!”
Fowler was speechless. “That was just the most ignorant, fucked-up, crazy thing to say!” he exclaims. “I mean, just why would you not make work about it? That’s one of the things we get to do! Telling somebody how to process their own experience is, like, out of control. That’s not how it works!” Nevertheless, throughout the period of the legal wranglings, the artists’ lawyer gave them exactly the same advice, for different reasons. It would absolutely not be prudent for them to appear, in any way at all, to be profiting even indirectly from the event of the fire.

Fowler’s work has long dealt with themes of destruction and implosion. His “Crash Pieces,” which he was making in the months prior to the fire, consisted of several framed photographs violently smashed and cleaved through each other. (The works are actually fastidiously constructed, a level of artifice that many viewers did not initially register.) Fowler’s work is often situated critically downstream from that of Steven Parrino and Christopher Wool, artists for whom he has the utmost admiration. (Wool famously had a studio fire in 1996, the insurance photographs for which he immediately used in his book Incident on 9th Street, a book that Fowler owned long before his own fire.)

“The irony is not lost,” Brendan says. After the fire, however, he tells me that the contrivance of his work, even its fakery, seemed hugely more apparent to him. “A thousand percent.” Fire, he says, seems to him to be on a different register of violence and power to the kinds of actions that he would normally use in his art. “I’m a breaker, a crusher, an overpainter, an eraser, a scratcher; these are all the kinds of gestures that I feel I have access to.” But burning stuff is different. “I’m not into fire, I’m not into arson. It has never been a seductive medium for me. My best friend when I was twelve burned to death. I’ve always been really afraid of fire.”

“At the end of the day,” he says, “Matt, Alexander, and Andrew did not get injured. They didn’t die. That’s a huge victory.” In the four years since the fire, he has worked hard to repair the sense of his studio as a safe place where he can be vulnerable. He secured three consecutive three-year leases on his current space; he is thinking about long-term stability. “It’s a really intimate space you make. It’s like a bedroom, or a nest. You wouldn’t put all that energy into it if you thought it was disposable.” I ask him if there isn’t a value in a studio being rough and ready, feeling adaptable, responsive, fit for purpose, but nothing more. Disposable, even. That in itself could be a kind of freedom. “I’ve gotten that way as a result of the fire. Everything important in here,” he says, looking around the large room, “is on wheels.”

A few months ago, a pressure washer in the studio on the floor above spontaneously turned itself on in the middle of the night. By the time the first person arrived for work the next morning, the entire building was flooded. The plug sockets are still uncovered in Brendan’s studio after the lower wall had to be entirely re-plastered. “Shit happens. It will happen again. It’s kind of a factor of working in these light-industrial buildings, in repurposed garages, in quasi-domestic spaces. When Anthony called,” he says, referring to Anthony Pearson, whose studio was destroyed two years after Brendan’s, “it was not the most surprising call to get.”

These days Brendan, like Anthony, finds himself checking and rechecking that all his appliances are unplugged before he leaves the studio in the evening. “I suffer from crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder. I actually had that before, so when the fire happened, it just confirmed that I was right. I knew it!”

Once lightning strikes you, are you less likely to get struck again? A mathematician would say no. Brendan tells me, only half joking, that he worries that if he were to have another studio burn down, the second time around the lawyers would conclude that he must obviously be an arsonist. “You get one ‘get-out-of-a-fire-free’ card. Now I’m really afraid! Now I really can’t have a fire!”

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