Chasing Smoke: Irby Pace's Latest Project Pops With Clouds of Ephemeral Color

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"We've got about five minutes, then we gotta bail," says photographer Irby Pace, who's looking over his shoulder as he plans the escape. A white patrol truck just passed by, again.

This spot where he's shooting isn't public property. It's an open-air industrial filling site attached to an old grain elevator, and it's seen better days. Built in the 1940s, this structure and the nearby train worked to transfer crops into and out of Fort Worth. Today disjointed piping segments cling to the exterior walls. Nests of stiff clothing and broken glass lie piled beneath the encroaching hackberries, evidence of layover visits from other less artful occupants. The building's function has evolved too: It now serves as a holding pen for fracking sand which will eventually make its way to drilling areas like Odessa, Irby Pace's West Texas hometown.

He's moving faster since spotting that patrolman, weaving a pattern of fishing lines around concrete support beams. Pace glances back at the road, rips a swath of tape with his teeth and wraps it around a smoke bomb, securing the canister into his freshly spun web.

"Average police response is five to 10 minutes," he says. Then, he lights the fuse.

Blue smoke kicks out, first in a spurt followed by hissing. Soon it billows, wafting out of frame. Then it churns back on itself, entering diffusional chaos. The wind's picked up, and the trail of gaseous pigment lifts higher, doubling as a brilliant smoke signal of our visit. Pace stands at his camera, cautiously pressing the shutter until the fuming device rattles out its death snap. Glancing through his shots, Pace's disappointment is apparent. We hop into the car and move on.


This is Pop!, a new body of work that Pace has developed to mutate and punctuate traditional landscape photography. I first encountered it a year ago, when the Denton-based artist and teacher displayed five pieces at 500X. In those early images the colored smoke was the sole subject of each picture's narrative, surrounded by otherwise lonesome horizons, like the opening image of this story. As he's refined his process Pace has grown bolder, unleashing his explosive protagonist into more complicated settings.

The juxtaposition is jarring. Lush, powerful clouds gather and float through unpreserved architecture, causing a counterbalance of tone, angle, shape and color. Galleri Urbane's owner and director Ree Willaford also saw Pop! early on, during Pace's first show. She recognized the allure of those mischievous prints and decided they deserved fine art representation. Pop! is now available exclusively through her Monitor Street gallery.

The idea for the series sparked a few years back when Pace was still chugging through grad school. He imagined clouds out of place, painted into spaces and landscapes they didn't naturally inhabit. One New Year's Eve something clicked, bringing his concept into focus. "I thought, 'Anybody can shoot fireworks at night,'" Pace says, "'but what about shooting them during the day?'"

He got in his car. It took more than an hour to find one, but Pace eventually tracked down a properly reckless, backroads fireworks stand. Bottle rockets. Smoke bombs. Roman candles. He cleared the place out.

"None of that worked," he says. The explosives launched too high to be useful. Colors were lackluster. The smoke bombs dissipated too quickly. Undeterred, Pace kept at it. Daily trials and errors took many forms, starting with cumbersome experiments in focal framing in which he'd suspend his fiery subjects from helium balloons, anchored by weights. Then there was the inevitable Denton fire marshal encounter when Pace's entire stockpile was confiscated, a costly setback that left Pace to begin anew. To him, those failures were necessary. Forced to step back, re-evaluate and refine his methods, the project pushed forward. Now he's got a process down so he can roll up, set up, shoot and get out fast.

This project serves as a needed return to classical photography for the artist. His last big series was his MFA show at UNT in early 2012 in which he displayed a curated selection of unlicensed selfies, all ripped off Mac Store demo devices. Pace downloaded thousands of the images, then reappropriated his favorites as found art for his thesis exhibition. Once Wired picked that story up, Pace became the subject of an international conversation about privacy rights, technology's role in art and where the legal boundaries align.

Despite how public and recent that part of his life is, very few of Pace's students are aware it happened. "Nobody really Googles their teachers," he says. About once a semester someone stumbles upon the story and brings it up either during or after class. He views their questions as opportunities to lead through example. "Whenever they see it they think, 'Oh, you could have went to jail for that.' So when I tell them to take risks they're more apt to listen." Pace says. "Because there are risks in life, and you could do something and get in trouble for it. But it's silly that you should get in trouble for doing anything artistic."


After sizing up and turning down several potential locations, Pace is racing the clock. He only works with natural light, which leaves a quick window in the early morning and another at dusk. He has less than an hour before calling this day a wash. Unsure about this last stop, he cases the area from its surrounding streets. This abandoned meat-packing plant is just blocks from the densely populated Fort Worth Stockyards and is moderately policed. He parks anyway. A quick dip under the fence and he's inside.

Nature has reclaimed this space, which looks more like a haunted prison yard than a fallen manufacturing empire. The switchgrass has grown to shoulder height, scraping the bottoms of the buildings' empty jalousie frames. Chinaberry branches extend indoors through rotted-out gaps. Graffiti fills every wall. It's a haven for snakes.

The blown-out windows and building shells are perfect stages for Pace's work. The structures lend protection from wind gusts, allowing the smoke to thickly fold upon itself. Plus, the fume's bold colors look pretty tight against the existing graffiti. We dart from building to building, with Pace shooting here and there until winding up on the third floor of some ancient factory. The clacky hum-roll of teenagers skateboarding rattles down from the roof as Pace sets up his shot. Just as he ignites the fuse, cloud cover slides past the sun and this room we're in fills with light. Those beams shimmer along the green cloud creating a visual mood elevator, illuminated from within this decaying squalor.

That's the shot. He smiles, but just a little.

Pace cuts his cords, gathers his materials and begins packing up any evidence of his visit. The smoke has faded, and everything looks just as it did before he entered. By the time he's done, there's nothing left to tie him here, aside from a few footprints in the rubble, one witness and several stunning pictures. Next time I encounter this obliterated room, it'll be as an oversized, horizontal photograph -- lit just so -- displayed on a pristine gallery wall. The reward of another risk taken by Irby Pace.

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