Fourteen artists pierce the darkness in new show at Mass MoCA

NORTH ADAMS — A new show at Mass MoCA embraces the traditional in order to examine what is unknown or even feared. In "The Lure of the Dark," 14 painters offer their take on what lurks in the night and how it relates to the things in our souls and our history.

Curator Susan Cross says that in conceiving the show, she was inspired by the James Turrell installation "Hind Sight," currently on display at the museum. "Hind Sight" requires visitors to sit for about 15 minutes in a room that transitions to the point of total darkness. Hearing people's reactions to that got Cross thinking about how people look at the dark and what the dark tells people about themselves — the dark as a point of self-examination, a mirror image that you can't quite see into, but which brings implications in its murky reflection.

What makes this show so different from many others at Mass MoCA is that it's compiled entirely of paintings, something that doesn't often happen at the museum.

"The night is so fertile and can go off on many tangents, so I really wanted to winnow it down to one medium," Cross said. "It was already a nod to this painterly tradition, so I thought, let's just keep it paintings. And it's fun to show paintings. Mass MoCA doesn't show that many paintings. I thought how traditional, it's radical."

Cross also thought that painting show would serve as a timely reminder that contemporary art does not exist in a vacuum. One of the bonuses for Cross has been the show's function as "an art historian's playground." It's filled with work that looks back to earlier traditions, especially German Romanticism and Van Gogh.

"I love showing these contemporary artists that are part of that long trajectory," she said. "Sometimes we forget that contemporary artists are part of this long history, so to bring those ideas into the present, it was very intentional. It was there before I started."

Upon entry, visitors are immediately greeted by Cy Gavin's 15-foot painting of Bash Bish Falls at night, a place of allure for Gavin. He often paints images of Bermuda at night, and like those, his Bash Bish Falls image features colors that reflect Gavin's inner feelings about the locations as much as the locations themselves.

"Painting the night, you can't see colors, so it also has to come from your mind," said Cross.

In that image, Gavin explores the idea of being a person of color alone in the night, and that's a theme that winds through other works. The late Los Angeles-based painter Noah Davis is featured with "Painting for My Dad," which features a black male figure carrying a lantern in the dark, perched on the edge of a cliff and staring into the abyss of the night.

Two series by Cynthia Daignault touch upon a woman's experience of similar circumstances. "40 Days and 40 Nights" features daily night-time renderings of a patch of forest next to a cabin in Stockport, NY, created over a period of 40 consecutive days.

In "Night Walk," Daignault returns to her childhood home in Baltimore and recreates through paintings the middle of the night walk she used to take to escape her parents' house.

"For some, the night is about their first taste of sex, drugs and rock and roll, as well as that anxiety-filled time thinking about your mortality or the things that go bump in the night," Cross said. "I think she captures that sense of things being strange as well as exciting. The familiar trees don't look so familiar anymore."

Williamstown painter William Binnie includes some of the night terror experienced by African Americans in his work "Atlas 1," which features 28 small paintings hung together. The KKK and church burnings are portrayed in the mix as part of a larger examination of the dark side of Americana.

"Altogether it creates an alternative picture of those traditional, iconic images of the U.S.," said Cross. "It's the white male image of the U.S. that he's investigating. He's looking into his own self image. What's really so frightening about this is that it's a few years old, but it's so timely now."

By using the dark as a springboard, other works in the show wrap in meditations on death, religion, celebrity, love, politics, anxiety and, of course, light. As Cross puts it, "This show is about illumination as much as darkness. You can't see one without the other. They're completely entwined."

Perhaps our feelings about darkness can be summed up in one question — "Who is out there?" That's directly posed by Dana Powell's simple painting "Brass Eye." At the center of the canvas is a peephole like you would find on any city apartment door. The museum visitor is on the outside of the door, put into the position of being the other, the unknown knock invading the private space — the one being peeped at.

It's as if the answer is "It's us; we are out there."


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