A Burning Mission : ‘Incendiary’ Artist Aims ‘to Reinvent What World Is All About’--in Context, of Course

Times Staff Writer

Jay D. McCafferty, an artist whose work consists of burning holes in paper with a magnifying glass, began his lecture at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana on Monday with a slide of the Parthenon.

Silence filled the auditorium after McCafferty asked the 30 students and observers whether they could name the building on the screen.

“Is that Greek or . . . Roman?” one class member eventually ventured, in reference to the 5th-Century BC structure that crowns the Athenian Acropolis and that has symbolized the attainments of Western civilization for more than 2 millennia.


In contrast with the befuddlement posed by the Parthenon, the class reacted with enthusiasm to McCafferty’s promotional videos, in which the former lifeguard describes his work as a “meditative” act and demonstrates the technique he uses to create his “burn paintings.”

Later, when the artist took questions, class members sought to probe McCafferty for insights into the abstract patterns created on paper by the sun’s rays and to discuss the peculiarities of various sorts of pigments.

The different reactions sparked by the Parthenon and McCafferty’s wall hangings offered proof for one of the many aphorisms the artist offered during his 2-hour presentation : “An artwork without a context is practically useless.”

“If you had no background on a (Vincent) Van Gogh painting, would you think it would be worth $53 million?” he asked, referring to the sale earlier this year of “Irises,” a work by the 19th-Century Dutch Post-Impressionist painter.

McCafferty finds his own context within the seaside life style of Southern California. Born in San Pedro in 1948, “my childhood goes back to the Beach Boys,” McCafferty said. On the beach he stayed, studying art at Cal State Long Beach and later at UC Irvine and becoming a Los Angeles County lifeguard in 1966.

McCafferty said his isolated post in Point Fermin Park helped mold his artistic sensibility: “Doing nothing well is what a lifeguard does best.”

Although he now holds an associate professorship at Los Angeles Harbor College, McCafferty still works 4 days a year as a lifeguard, the minimum necessary to stay on Los Angeles County’s part-time eligibility lists. While lifeguards are not, in general “art literate,” McCafferty said he enjoys the camaraderie of the beach.

McCafferty’s burn paintings, which have been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Long Beach Museum of Art, consist of several layers of paper that the artist prepares with different pigments. Placed atop his roof, McCafferty chooses a pattern, often based on a grid, then focuses a magnifying glass on a particular area.

The area quickly incinerates, creating a rapidly growing circle of ashes, along with changes in color caused by the chemical reaction between the heat and the pigments. After extinguishing the “solar burn” with his hands, McCafferty moves on to the next area.

The technique creates intricate patterns of colors and shapes. A 4-by-6-foot wall hanging of this type, which McCafferty brought to show the class, took “a couple of days” to produce and will sell for $6,500.

Some have likened the burn paintings to ill-preserved parchment or linen fragments from antiquity. In the video, McCafferty declares that “my work is really about trying to reinvent what the world is all about.”

But McCafferty denied that his art, which he said is most often bought by corporations to decorate their offices, possess any content; instead, he says in a statement distributed to the class: “The work is a record of my private performance of an active interaction of materials and processes that end in a finite time frame with each other.”

Elaborating on the metaphysical side of his work, McCafferty said, “Spiritual to me is not church--that’s a place where you sit in rows.”

Instead of organized religion, McCafferty finds spirituality in nature and her processes. He recalled a perilous journey in 1974, when he taught art aboard ship in a yearlong study program.

“I was on the ship, going south to Peru when we hit a storm,” he said. “I was petrified, till I went outside and felt perfectly calm. That’s what I mean by spiritual--instead of me, nature, God being separate things, we’re all one.”

The artist quickly added that “the trouble with that (sort of talk) is that you start sounding like . . . (an) idiot.”

McCafferty told the class that he had no social or political topics for his work. “Our time on earth is so short, I want to think about what infinity is about,” he said.

Additionally, he said: “It could be that I haven’t had an issue that’s really (made him angry). When you look at my work, you’re not going to get me so much as my search for self. Reality is predestined, and yet totally unrestricted.”

Somewhere, the artist said, there are people who understand this fundamental contradiction that he has identified as the basis of his work.

“I have this idealized audience out there,” McCafferty sighed, as he prepared to leave the Rancho Santiago campus Monday afternoon, his rolled-up burn painting under his arm. “People that know what the Parthenon is.”