Artists catch light and shadow at Mass MoCA and the Norman Rockwell Museum


Edward Hopper wanted to paint sunlight on the side of a house, said Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum. He loved painting sunlight at various times of day. He would often paint a figure seated by a window in the light -- a seamstress maybe, sewing in a New York factory.

In Teresita Fernández's "Black Sun" at Mass MoCA, natural light will fall through tall mill windows and polycarb tubes, and as light shifts in the gallery through the day it will change the feel of her work.

Across the county and a century, these two artists share a fascination with light and shadow, a love of cinema and city spaces.

This summer will bring Fernández's "As Above, So Below" solo show to Mass MoCA in North Adams and "The Unknown Hopper," a look at his early career, to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

Mass MoCA curator Denise Markonish has followed Fernández' work for years.

"She can negotiate space in new and interesting ways," Markonish said. In "As Above, So Below," Fernández looks up to the sky and under the earth in glass and light, graphite and gold.

"Graphite exists in us, in a meteor, underground," Markonish said.

Fernández wants to capture what it feels like to stand at the edge of the sea and look out over the water, Markonish said. "Lunar Theater" will filter natural light from a wall of windows through glass beads, with a surface like sea or sand dunes.

"Black Sun" is about the night sky, she said, and "Epic" feels like constallations.

"Landscape is not just horizon," she said.

More than trees and mountains, Fernández hoped to tap events of landscape -- or skyscape -- a meteor shower, a lunar cycle. She wanted not the physical presence of the land but an ephemeral, cinematic experience, Markonish said.

She has set a series of graphite landscapes or cloudscapes on highly reflective panels, so that as visitors walk past, their images will flicker in and out like the small movements of a film.

Hopper also loved the cinema, the movement of light and the depth of shadow.

In him, Plunkett also saw a longing for "more introspective, less narrative"work.

Hopper worked as an illustrator for nearly 20 years, she said, before he could support himself by his painting alone, but did not want to illustrate. He did not want to work within the demands of a magazine or an advertisement, to show people with exaggerated expressions.

But he learned to support himself with advertisements and magazine sketches and even war posters, she said. She has found an Everyone's Magazine from Dec. 1918 -- with stories about soldiers. Hopper illustrated all through World War I. He was illustrating for Scribner's at about the time they began publishing F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories.

Like Fitzgerald's, his work has a quality of disconnection, Plunkett said. In Hopper's paintings, people often feel cut off, as though they are the only ones awake in the city at 4 a.m. Their expressions may be strong and yet hard to read.

"That's what captivates people about his work," she said. "They feel a story there, feel they could write that sory, but it's not transparent. He wanted mystery."

His paintings look deliberate, controlled and purposeful, she said -- architectural -- setting a scene in large shapes and strong color, with surfaces as slick as Jay Gatsby's lawn.

Fernández, working with her own smooth and mirrored surfaces, sets her work glimmering with gold chrome and pyrite.

She chooses her materials carefully, often synthetic ones and often connected to an urban working environment.

"So much of her work is about taking often humble materials and transforming them. Graphite is a mined material," Markonish said.

In Hopper's day, American artists had developed a school around humble materials.

A group of artists he encountered in New York, the Ash Can School, painted scenes of regular people, not historic scenes or political figures or mythology but lower class families, street urchins, women at a laundry, laborers.

Hopper encountered them as teachers and as students, and they inspired him. But his maybe greatest inspiration, Plunkett said, came from his wife, Josephine Nivison, an artist he originally met in art school. She believed in him and negotiated for him, helping him to sell his serious work.

She continued to paint on her own -- and he painted her.

She was the main model for many of his figures, Plunkett said. When he painted the isolated images he is known for -- like two people alone in a Chinese restaurant late at night -- he often painted his wife. They were married for more than 40 years. So those images have roots in human closeness.

Markonish too finds the key to Fernández's work in "an intimate immensity."

So both raise the question, how much of each work's power comes from loneliness -- and how much from having that one person across the table in the diner when night falls?


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