‘Fiery’ exhibit takes over Fine Arts Center
Perhaps it is the vibrant color contrasts of earth and sky, or the bleak, burned world that Luther Smith captures with his large-format view camera. But whatever the method to his madness, the aptly-titled exhibit “The Fire Pictures,” which is now featured in UALR’s Fine Arts Center, ensnares the artist’s audience in unapologetically brazen depictions of arbor after a wildfire.
“The Fire Pictures” is a series of four different scenes from the remnants of a forest after a wildfire engulfed its innards, all presumably in Texas (based upon the cited locations of his other pieces). They feature the naked, exposed, vulnerable forgings of trees and mangled branches. Scattered about the trunks are billions of ashes, which appear as powdery snow upon first glance. But that is part of the beauty of this seized moment in time: unless the audience takes the time to behold the photographs, the latters will be ‘written off’ as tediously serene winter scenes and will surely be passed by for something more aesthetically-pleasing. Only the inquisitive mind will initially regard the frames with a quick glance and start to walk on…but won’t. The curious will peer in for a closer look at the scenes, because something caught the eye. A more thorough scrutiny will reveal that the “snow” is in fact ashes, and a figure is lying immobile in the “snow”. The curious will creep ever-closer to the photo to affirm if the eye beholds a…yes, it does! It sees a dead horse lying on its side on the ground in between the trees; protruding from the beast is what looks suspiciously like viscera. The resulting image is hauntingly grotesque, and yet undeniably magnificent.
In a comparable format are the four pictures of Smith’s series, sharing several similarities. Each rendering plucks the most fraught flora from the back of the viewer’s cognitive garden, even despair and abandonment. The stark, stripped dead trees of earth (characterized by blacks, whites, and charcoals), so lost to the world, are in striking contrast to the radiant, illuminated sky (characterized by hues of bright, bold blues and white, wispy clouds), which is safely liberated from the folly of mankind. The audience is almost guilty to witness this injustice. The fire greedily lapped up the life that was once present within the forest, leaving in its wake a barren wasteland of arbor corpses.
The clashing of emotional responses between sympathy, guilt, and hope illustrates Luther Smith’s ability to reflect destructive human error in innocent nature. Smith imparts to his audience the knowledge that the world is aflame, and humans are ignorant to it. The inquisitive mind will depart from Smith’s work thoroughly convicted and in possession of a newfound conscious for events absent from immediate observation.
The one saving grace within each of Smith’s work is the promise of a renaissance. After a fire, the soil is supremely fertile, having been replenished with carbon and nutrients. That means that with time, the forest will achieve—and hopefully surpass—the health and vivacity that permeated before the inferno swallowed it. The revitalized forest will be fresh, brilliant, and jovial.