Daphne Arthur’s Smoke Drawings takes us into an other-worldly landscape that is both recognizable and yet beautifully foreign. Many of the objects in her artwork border on appearing animated, thus creating a narrative of the fantastic. Take for instance Grasses of Green Lemon Drops, where the scene resides in between apocalyptic desolation and serene beauty. The tree in the foreground accompanied by those exotic blooms seem like a well-placed houseplant. Just behind it, however, we see another tree that has risen up through a wreckage of wood metal structures. Likewise, to the left, a vine with ominous tentacles encroaches on the wooden beams, some of which look to be is disrepair or decay. The covering above is both beautiful and haunting, with its blood tones, and even to the left, it looks to be more like a membrane with delicate veins running throughout.
In Catching Butterflies, we have another lush, exotic scene even as two grotesque trunks go to battle. The one on the left looks ghostly, and one can even see a clear outline of a shoulder, which leads into strange, tentacle-like hands. The trunk on the left appears to be a leg, with a distinct knee where it crosses another plant. It is a giant, animal-like foot, then, that tries to stop the spectral tree. Or, since we have the title of “Catching Butterflies,” that foot is a claw capturing its prey. I would argue that the absence of any human form in both these works lends itself to the gothic, yet because Arthur uses smoke as her artistic medium, the landscapes takes on an ethereal quality.
The drawings “are created by elevating paper over a candle and allowing the smoke to create marks, tones and shapes onto the surface, which then the image is slowly teased out after adding each layer of smoke,” Arthur explains. “The smoke’s natural illusiveness and unpredictability became a natural choice for experimenting and creating a body of work through unconventional means. One of the overarching themes in all of my work is the exploration of media and adaptation of discarded materials such as objects or things of ephemeral nature as smoke, and converting these materials into something different.”
In Frent a Frente, one can see these themes of abandonment, such as the graffiti face grimacing in the background. Double eyed, hallucinatory and somewhat threatening, the yellow face is in a direct line with the yellow sail boat in the foreground and the ambiguous house-like structures above it. It is a scene of wondrous decay as it appears that a unearthly jungle has grown over all the human-made structures. To the right, a young boy in board shorts surveys the scene. We can’t see any expression on his face, yet the position of his arm doesn’t show any fear necessarily. It is the woman hunching by his stomach, one eye wide, the other, defaced, that adds a more threatening element to the scene. From her position we can’t tell if she is looking at something on the boy’s stomach or looking beyond it. Her mouth is hidden by his midriff, adding a very ambiguous tension there–is it sexual? Is she sucking poison out of a wound? Frente a frente means “face to face,” and yet here we have fractured glances and profiles so intention is completely in the realm of audience. Arthur explains that such uncertainties frame the series as a whole: “I was interested in perception and the psychology of viewing. Fumage, the formal name for this technique, is in fact, reflections of smoke captured on paper… inspired by film noir and Japanese art from the Edo period the smoke drawings contemplatively capture a dreamlike trace or essence of a psychological constructed space.”
The surreal nature of Wasteland keeps it on the very edge of horror and humor. The young man in the foreground sports contemporary clothes while behind him, the tribesmen with spears and blowguns behind him seem from another time and place. They are running, but the young is not, and so we have even more dissonance in their relationship. Is he the reluctant leader of this wraith-like gang, given the hunting club logo on his shirt? His look is not one of someone spotting a kill, but rather a kind of placid resignation. Could he even be waiting to be captured rather than outrun them? Given his size substantial height difference and youth, one would think he had a fair chance of escaping his captors should we wish to. But in a true wasteland, where does one run to for refuge? The beautiful trees in the background and moon-dusted sky contradict the idea that this is an apocalyptic setting, so perhaps it is not so much the landscape that is seen as a wasteland but a sense of home? Of identity?
Arthur’s Smoke Drawings have a visually arresting narrative that I have only begun to scratch the surface of in this article. There are 39 drawing in the series, each work casting its own story while whispering to the others. It is a journey into a phantom world full of sensuality and abandonment, otherness and discovery, the kind of landscape meant to birth new stories in all of us.
All images used with permission of the artist.
To see more of Arthur’s work, please visit her website: http://daphnearthur.com