Smoke-Filled Sky (You Can Burn a Man's House but Not His Dreams)

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    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Charred wood, industrial sealing compound, paint, on wood
47.75 x 77 inches
Collection of
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

In 1990 Lockett undertook a series of works with the general title Smoke-Filled Sky: You Can Burn a Man’s House but Not His Dreams. He produced at least seven variations in this body of work as he wrestled with the challenge of depicting the violence of the Klan at the height of the civil rights movement in central Alabama and beyond. Lockett, born in the mid-1960s, grew up with the history of the struggle and its unresolved legacies—but it was a received history rather than one born of experience. All of Lockett’s Smoke-Filled Sky works, despite variations in size and depth, adhere to a shared composition that presents a burned-out building (almost always a house) positioned in a moonless stygian landscape. The charred timbers of the structure glow with smoldering embers and white trails of smoke drift into the night sky. One, sometimes two, scorched trees languish adjacent to the ruined dwelling. Versions of the work provide a sense of Lockett’s progression in his efforts to visualize historical narrative and social concern in a synthesis of abstraction and representation. Because Lockett typically did not number or date his works, the sequence of the works is organized around the idea of progression based on the attainment of affect—to communicate pain and loss without offense—that animates his historical work. —Bernard L. Herman