Playing with Fire

Oct 312006
Authors: Francisco Tharp

There’s a new artist haunting the Front Range, and he’s got a smoking torch in each hand. You couldn’t bring him a beer or pass him a tray of celery and dip at his gallery opening. No, this artist is an ethereal, fire-breathing energy – a ghost of sorts who lets his two earthly torches do his burning for him.

His name is AJ DicHol, and you’ve never heard of him, but that doesn’t mean this volatile phantom with his pioneering processes and uncanny performance art isn’t blazing out an essential niche in the eastern slope art scene.

A. Hol (a.k.a. “Aaron Holtzer”), one of AJ DicHol’s two flames, describes AJ DicHol as the artistic manifestation of the reality that “destruction is the source of all creation.” J. Dic (a.k.a. “John Dickinson”), flame numero dos who lights AJ DicHol’s way, puts him (yes, AJ DicHol does receive a singular, masculine pronoun) in more down-to-earth terms: “AJ DicHol is just two good-looking men making the best damn art ever.”

This complementary contrast of artistic vision beats the heart and hearkens the rhythm of what AJ DicHol truly is: a plural beast, at once elegant and raw, oblique and globular, an acid cowboy meets MC Escher. Like lingering coals, his outward artistic glow will draw you into a deeper, multi-layered realm seemingly not of this world.

With their “Guerilla Dada” project, uninhibited performance art and series of primal yet sophisticated canvas burnings, the two senior fine arts students at CSU are playing with the fiery limits of artistic representation.

“AJ DicHol is very material and process driven,” says J. Dic. “It’s natural occurrences that are creating the art. We have limited control. It’s in the moment.”

The bulk of AJ DicHol’s works belongs to a series of “burnings” inspired by the blazing of one of J. Dic’s unsatisfactory creations. Out of artistic frustration, the two collaborators reinvented fire as an artistic medium.

“I had collaged strips of tape on the front of this piece and I wasn’t happy with it,” recalls J. Dic. “So I threw it into the flames. The flames were hitting the front, but the tape was masking out the burns, and we just kind of went with it.”

AJ DicHol begins his process by stretching a raw canvas on a pine frame. Then he applies various masking agents to the back of the canvas, which is then creatively toasted over a fire pit in A. Hol’s Fort Collins backyard. The fuel for the fire ranges from scrap wood to books to garbage.

“We burn everything,” A. Hol says. The masking agents – ranging from glues to CDs – resist the flames while non-masked regions of the canvas burn more quickly. Even rain has been used to create speckled compositions, although J. Dic names rain as “AJ DicHol’s arch nemesis.”

Once, during an attempt to work in the rain, AJ DicHol’s protective umbrella caught fire and burned to the wire skeleton.

“The process can be very primal, very masculine,” J. Dic and A. Hol agree. “We have beards. We work in the rain – sometimes with our shirts off.”

The masks create light-colored negative compositions against a parched background tinted like a half-smoked, hand-rolled cigarette. The canvases as a whole connote long-faded sepia photographs, where the corporeal elements of a strict, 19th century couple have sizzled away leaving only the spiritual cores. Some burnings – including such titles as “Robots Doing it Doggy Style,” “Ninja Decimal Point,” “Can I Have a Light For My Space Ziggurat?” and “Photograph Taken From a Photograph Taken From Space Sub” – turn out to resemble a brown Rorschach card or a prehistoric cave-wall communication.

Some invoke extraterrestrial blueprints, solar system maps or Nebraskan-cornfield landing sites. Others scream brown primordial stew of amoebae and bacteria. They seem to reveal contemporary expressions of the biologically formal elements of life itself.

The canvases are then set in angular, black wooden frames, which become as much an element of the art as the canvases within. AJ DicHol’s Web site claims the burnings “blur the line between sculpture and 2-D art.” Some pieces, like “Light Guy” – a vertically arcing series of five, one-foot square canvases – are backlit by a lighting system concealed behind the images.

The amber glow unifies the canvases by igniting the original flame of creation in the final display. Compositions range from six inches square to their largest 3-D piece, which is four-by-five-by-three feet.

One unique piece, titled “Two Million Dollar Burning,” is a reverse burning, with the masking agents left intact on the canvas. “We call it the ‘Two Million Dollar Burning’ because we won’t accept less than two million dollars for it. Unless it’s one million dollars,” J. Dic explains.

The burning series consists of “between 80 and 4,000 pieces. Probably closer to 80,” J. Dic guesses.

The two artists, who conceived AJ DicHol in 2004 after meeting in a sculpture class, created most of their burnings to be displayed and sold at the 2005 Cherry Creek Art Festival. Currently, 25 of the pieces are on display and for sale in Seven-30 South restaurant and gallery, 730 S. College Ave. in Denver.

AJ DicHol has also seared the walls of Denver’s Walker Fine Art, Walnut Foundry, the Purple Martini and the Denver Design Center – a place where “rich guys go to buy $3,000 sofas,” A. Hol points out.

Beyond burnings, AJ DicHol experiments with a series of performance art he calls “Guerilla Dada” which goes something like this: Under the cover of dada darkness AJ DicHol penetrates the Visual Arts Building on campus and places found objects about the building accompanied by comment sheets inviting viewers to respond to the works.

“In one,” remembers A. Hol, “we had this little porcelain boy dressed up in Dutch clothing sitting on an Astroturf welcome mat; but we did lots of different stuff. Most of it was stolen within 24 hours.”

“The comments we got were pretty varied,” J. Dic adds. “Some were awfully negative, and others played along with it, but all were pretty humorous.”

Besides “Guerilla Dada” AJ DicHol performs readings of erotic Jackie Collins passages from the tops of buildings on campus, after which he smashes the fine literature on the ground until it is destroyed.

“Holtz usually picks some pretty juicy passages,” J. Dic says.

Another series of works born of AJ DicHol is the “Wreckdems” collection.

“‘Wreckdems’ are burnings that we messed up on,” says A. Hol. “And then we’d say we had ‘wrecked ’em.’ Then we’d place rectangular frames around the screw-ups.”

There is no shortage of punning in the AJ DicHol studio. Take the name, for example. “It also rearranges to form ‘Hol JA Dic,’ A. Hol points out. “Together we are one. The Dic and the Hol, together.”

The next piece they plan on developing is a letter to the sun, the literal center of the solar system.

“It’s just a thank you note,” says J. Dic. “Just, ‘Thanks, sun!'”

A. Hol has calculated that postage for a thank-you note to the sun – not including insurance – will cost about $172,787,878.80, but he is not absolutely sure it will ever arrive.

“It may burn up upon arrival,” he predicts. “After all, it is the sun.”

Staff writer Francisco Tharp can be reached at


To view galleries of the burning series, go to

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