Words by Teale Hatheway
 

Daphne Hill's most recent series of paintings contains the spitting images of vigor, innocence, frivolity and lust. Grounds of ornamental domestic materials - wall paper and place mats - are familiar, invoking a safe haven and privacy. Heavy florals, strokes of gold, dotted patterns and ribbons decorate Hill's surfaces to enhance the air of fantasy as the curve of a hip or a perfectly-ripe piece of fruit entice the viewer to enter an opulent boudoir.

Daphne Hill's most recent series of paintings is a trap.

"Anxiety is the impetus for my work," according to Hill, and boy, is she not kidding. If at first you are drawn in by their doily-drenched sweetness, the narratives of her confectionary dreams quickly unravel into dark, dirty little secrets that nobody wants to think about, much less mention. In this series, Hill has wrestled the subject of venereal disease to the floor, dressed it up and taken it out on the town for a good time. Slick resin surfaces pronounce their clinical sterility while black silhouettes of men and women entice, engage and exchange with each other. Her intense use of ornament serves as an aesthetic foil for the biological imprints of bacterial diseases which, in their macroscopic representations, become celebratory fireworks and streamers. The resulting compositions camouflage the diseases and enforce a formality by which we understand the limits of what we are encouraged to discuss.

Hill's paintings are affronting narratives of saccharine and salt all rolled up into big balls of "let's not talk about it." As such, they express one of the basest anxieties of the human condition: if it's going to be fun, it has got to be dangerous.

 

Daphne Hill by William Zimmer
 

The lyric "Hello darkness my old friend" fits the mood of Daphne Hill's art. Her ambience is rarely actually darkness, although some paintings are specifically set at night. Rather, she is at ease with the dark side of life and represents it with irony.

One of her ways of dealing with phenomena we'd rather avoid is to enshrine or pay homage to it. For example, a common weed from her garden with trailing roots and all, is set against a gold background, the way medieval kings used to be honored. She looks closely at mold and this results in a painting in which spores dance almost festively. Sometimes she dedicates paintings with these noxious subjects to her friends, a risky practice if the items didn't look so elegant.

Hill puts as much time and effort into her outsized charcoal drawings as she does her paintings. Occupying most of the field of a typical drawing is a hand with long fingers and well-manicured nails. Hill says that she does have others model their hands but that she frequently draws her own. They're like self-portraits because they have alacrity and character. Hill shows the prehensile digits holding various fruits; the fruits often look too large for the hand, that's why they're grabbed rather rapaciously. Holding a couple of blood oranges in one hand seems a sort of feat. She mines the erotic possibilities of a lemon by drawing it caressed. The pattern is varied a little with the playful dangling of two cherries joined at the stem.

The key to Hill's art is realizing that her well-honed dedication to the disturbing or even creepy enters the viewers' consciousness by slow steps. We are seduced before we stop short. This is a reminder that the richest most involving art pulls us in different, somewhat opposing ways. With Daphne Hill the workout is bracing.

William Zimmer
New York City
July 2006

Mr. Zimmer was a contributing critic for The New York Times for over 20 years.