Following the Lure of the Scent: Exploring the Power of Fragrance
While the beauty of Lure appealed primarily to the bodily senses—visual first, then olfactory—at its core, the exhibition’s conceptual nature required thought and contemplation, for each flower-based work became a receptacle of the artist’s ideas. For those who elected to take the course, it was also a study of flowers—red and white roses, narcissus, dandelions, deadly nightshades, daffodils—as metaphors for the power of fragrance to cite history, trigger memory and awaken our emotions. Bellotto also hinted, not too subtly, I thought, of her own experience with “clouds of scent that follow many people,” as well as aromas infusing the air in perfume parlors that are predominant in the United Arab Emirates—Dubai in particular—where she co-chairs and teaches in the Department of Art and Design at Zayed University.
Entry to Lure was an encounter with The Grass is Greener (2011), a blown glass, shell-shaped sculpture filled with grass-scented oil, colored black with the addition of india ink, the very oil, as the artist informed me, that instigated this project. “The smell of the oil reminded me of cut grass, something not usually found in the desert climate of the Emirates.” Further embracing the sense of smell, Bellotto’s Flora from the Emirates (2009), portrayed a museum-type vitrine lined with vials of perfumed oils. “I began collecting various perfume oils that reminded me of nature – or nature- filled moments that I could not experience in the UAE. The purpose of putting them on display was to create another picture of the flower, a visual transition through the colors of the scents.” Indeed, this is exactly what happened. In “viewing” the vials, each with its own color and fragrance – grass, saffron, rose, jasmine, and oud, whose smell is reminiscent of a damp forest wood – I found myself trying to visualize, but actually succeeding with the more familiar flowers, grass, and plants, that the oils were extracted from.
In Floral Façade (2011), four facemasks on paper with perfumed essence, Bellotto fashioned a series to fool the eye, nose and mind, not unlike various species of insect-eating plants using these same elements of form, color, and smell to mask their imminent danger. Like unsuspecting insects, one is drawn to the beauty of the flowery masks; on closer inspection, however, their beauty turns horrific, the realization gradually occurring that each mask, deliberately camouflaged with an enticing design, is used solely to enable its wearer to breathe, not only easily, but sometimes, to breathe at all. Mirror of Opposites and Envy, the smallest and simplest of the masks, half-face masks, in fact, are the type used to filter air for asthmatics and others with respiratory problems. The most ghastly of the group – ironically the most compelling in size, shape and design – proved to be Weeds of Dreams and Deadly Bed of Roses, full-face gas masks worn by firemen and soldiers at war.
In The Niche of Your Hair (2011), a literary-based wall installation, Bellotto, whose hair is down past her waist – perhaps, like many coifs in the Emirates, even perfumed – made use of the peineta, a large decorative comb worn under a mantilla or lace covering, as a metaphor relating the scent and flow of perfume and its romanticism, to that of the hair. Each of the seven acrylic peinetas on view, all intricately designed and laser-cut by the artist, contained words from the title or body of poems discussing perfume. Here the romantic sonnets of Baudelaire, Shakespeare, and others, served her well. In one peineta, Bellotto, in a bow to the multibillion dollar cosmetic industry, used the words Montezuma Red, the color of the lipstick that Elizabeth Arden created for women in the armed forces during World War II, to match the red on their uniforms.
The two most mesmerizing works in Bellotto’s exhibition – due to their cinematic beauty – were her digitally-manipulated videos, The Lure and Blow (2011). In each one-minute piece, assembled from Internet-appropriated footage looped to run continuously, she managed, without wandering too far from her exploration of perfumed fragrance and the olfactory sense, to link the visuals’ rhythms to the viewer’s own breathing patterns; and perhaps, if one’s imagination allowed—as mine did—to one’s sexual responses. In Blow, a row of Narcissus lined up like dancing chorus girls at the skirt of a stage, performing nature’s dance. They first appeared as buds, then, like the shooting fireworks of an orgasm, exploded violently into bloom. The Lure pitted two contrasting elements– a large, wavering pink flower and billowing puffs of smoke–face to face. Just as in life, Bellotto left it to the viewer to determine whether the subject was a kind of symbolic, balletic pas de deux, or a duel to the death.
By Edward Rubin, Contributing Writer
The Lure, appeared at De Luca Fine Art Gallery, Toronto, Canada, in November, 2011