Alexandria Smith, ‘The Uncertainty of It All,’ 2014
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass.) – “The Lure of the Dark: Contemporary Painters Conjure the Night,” a new exhibition featuring paintings — including new commissions — by a diverse group of over a dozen contemporary artists, is on view at MASS MoCA, with a members opening reception on Saturday, March 24, at 5:30pm.
Artists represented in the exhibit include Patrick Bermingham, William Binnie, Cynthia Daignault, Noah Davis, TM Davy, Jeronimo Elespe, Cy Gavin, Josephine Halvorson, Shara Hughes, Sam McKinniss, Wilhelm Neusser, Dana Powell, Kenny Rivero, and Alexandria Smith.
From Rembrandt and “The Night Watch” to Georges de La Tour’s candlelit scenes of the seventeenth century, James McNeill Whistler’s woozy “Nocturnes,” Vincent van Gogh’s dizzying “Starry Night,” and Edward Hopper’s lonely “Nighthawks,” artists have long sought to capture the mood of the night. Sex, death, romance, magic, terror, wonder, alienation, and freedom — the night invites a myriad of often contradictory associations. For centuries, painters have been drawn to the mysteries and marvels of the night and its perceptual and poetic possibilities.
Of course, an exhibition about the night is also about the light that illuminates the darkness, from the moon and the stars, to candles, cigarettes, and the glow of cell phones. Many of the artists in “The Lure of the Dark” look back to predecessors, capturing the night en plein air, sometimes completing a painting in a single sitting or night. The exhibition illustrates the ways in which the hours of darkness continue to provoke the contemporary imagination, providing apt metaphors for the diversity and intersections of human experience along with the anxious tenor of the day.
Patrick Bermingham has been painting the night for over two decades, both inside his studio and outside under the moonlight. The muted palette of his massive 8×16 ft. work, Midway on our path of life (2017) approximates the limited gray, black, and white hues that we see at night. The shift that occurs as night vision and the rods take over also happens with Bermingham’s paintings, which are exhibited in very low light. With patient looking, the rather sketch-like appearance of the large high-contrast painting becomes more clearly defined, and the work appears to glow with moonlight.
Texas-raised, Williamstown resident William Binnie pictures the racial terror associated with night with his recent work The Vine that Ate the South (2018). In his hyperrealist style, he examines the myth surrounding kudzu, a non-native species that lives large in the Southern imagination as a monstrous weed that enshrouds millions of acres in land under its dark tangled mass. A burning torch on the same canvas evokes the frightening images of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Outside a small, remote cabin in nearby Stockport, New York, Cynthia Daignault spent a winter alone, painting 40 Days / 40 Nights (2014). Working en plein air, she painted two paintings each day over the course of 40 days, spending four to six hours painting a view through the trees in daylight and then another four to six hours painting the view after the sun set. Painting the same patch of forest and sky night after night, Daignault beautifully captures the dramatic changes in light and color — from the pinks and oranges of sunset to the deep blues and blacks of the witching hours.
Painted after his father’s death, Noah Davis’ Painting for My Dad (2011) taps into night’s close association with death — the sleep that does not end. Depicting a lone figure carrying a lantern into the dark in what looks like a deep cave or an infinite starry night sky, the painting has become even more poignant in the wake of the artist’s own death in 2015.
In an homage to Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), TM Davy has created the monumental Fire Island Moonrise. Painted in his masterful, traditional style, the 11×11 ft. self-portrait with his husband transports viewers to the transcendent, erotically charged beach scene. Looking up at the work, you can almost feel the light on your face and the domed sky above your head.
Jeronimo Elespe paints dreamlike scenes based on autobiographical details, lingering between myth and the mundane. The artist’s pointillist-like application of paint often evokes the illusion of night, creating atmospheric images that suggest the dark. In Hesperides (2017) the maidens of the evening from Greek mythology emerge like ghosts from a crepuscular mist wearing head scarves and carrying goblets.
Showing two new works, including one that measures nearly 15 feet, Cy Gavin often paints the night. Drawn to the darkness when color is difficult to discern, he lets his imagination take over. His fantastic hues — acid greens and fluorescent pinks — are inspired in part by the vivid colors of Bermuda by day: pink hibiscus, green ferns, turquoise water, and the purple iris-like Bermudiana flower. They also impart the intense emotions embedded in the land and the legacies of slavery that linger on the island. For MASS MoCA Gavin painted a monumental image of Bash Bish Falls under ice, paying homage to the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich.
Josephine Halvorson, who is based in nearby New Marlborough, MA, created her “Night Window” works during a residency at the French Academy at the Villa Medici in Rome between 2014 and 2015. Each painting in the series is a unique iteration of a single view of the window in her atelier and the night sky beyond. They are titled with the date on which they were painted, a cue that each is a distinct portrait of a particular experience. Together the works are a study of nuance and the passage of time on both human and cosmological levels.
Shara Hughes’ vibrant, invented landscapes pay homage to a pantheon of early 20th-century painters, including Henri Matisse and the Fauves, Vincent van Gogh, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove. Hughes often allows confusion between the illusion of moonlight and sunlight in her paintings, as is true in Spins from Swiss (2017). The work was inspired by the artist’s experience of driving through the mountains of Switzerland. Moving in and out, up and down, between dark and light, the painting recreates the dizzying feeling of the circuitous roads and soaring peaks.
Known for paintings based on images he sources online, from animals and flowers to celebrity portraits (he was commissioned to paint the musician Lorde for the cover of her 2017 album Melodrama), Sam McKinniss is showing a new work based on an image of singer Lana Del Rey. Another new work, Northern Lights (2017), an ecstatic vision of the Aurora Borealis that suggests the technicolor light displays and drug-induced hallucinations of urban nightclubs.
A recent artist-in-residence in MASS MoCA’s studio program, Wilhelm Neusser looks to the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich and German Romanticism in his enigmatic landscapes which seem to be as much a psychological terrain as a specific geography. In Nocturne/Doublemoon (2017), he merges the mysterious atmosphere of Romantic painting with elements of Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, named for George Orwell’s dystopian vision of 1984. The intense, green glow of Neusser’s painting gives it a futuristic feel while reminding us that at night, it is the light with the shortest wavelengths — green — that can be seen best.
Dana Powell began her series of night paintings in the aftershocks of the 2016 presidential election. Conveying the anxious tenor of the time, images of desolate roadways — like Ghost Drive (2017) — are filled with the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock film. The dark scene, and the hazy apparition visible on the side of the road, invite any number of imagined scenarios as we wonder what might be waiting around the next bend.
Kenny Rivero’s new work was begun at the nearby Buxton School where the artist, formerly a student, was in residence in August 2017. The work recalls the dramas of his Washington Heights neighborhood and both the excitement and fears inspired by a nocturnal New York lit by street lamps, car lights, fires, and the warm glow emanating from apartment windows.
Alexandria Smith’s paintings frame the body as something slightly wild and unruly — a foreign terrain to be explored like the night. Her cartoon-like images suggest a child’s point of view, while evoking images from fairy tales, which often articulate social taboos that twist the formation of identity and ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. In The Skin We Speak (2017), the night offers a refuge for two young women — or the self and a reflection — to explore a language spoken by the body, undeterred by the narratives of others.
About MASS MoCA
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