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The lure of the dark

Mass MOCA, North Adams, Massachusetts
Through January 2019

Nocturne/Doublemoon (1728), by Wilhelm Neusser, 2017. Oil on linen, 57×67 inches. Image courtesy of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

I love the dark. In the dark, my eyes seem to reach out into space like phantom limbs. In reality, the eye is more like a black hole than a limb, where all light is absorbed in the pupil. Step into the light, and the eye squints, the iris constricts, and the pupil narrows to a tiny pinhole. Turn off the lights, and the black hole opens wide to absorb as much light as possible.

Visiting this exhibition is like stepping into a dark theater. Paintings are spot-lit to acquire a chiaroscuro in the space, drawing their luminosity out of the surrounding darkness. Each painting pulls you into its own dreamlike scene. Shara Hughes’ ebullient landscapes stand out with exuberant colors and dynamic compositions. Her haptic surfaces indulge our senses with a variety of fluid gestures and glittery fields. Wilhelm Neusser’s quieter nocturnes enchant the viewer with deeply romantic, painterly scenes that pay homage to both Gerhard Richter and Caspar David Friedrich.

Fourteen painters present diverse interrogations of darkness as a visible and invisible entity. William Binnie’s realistic paintings on raw canvas confront the history of racism. Sam McKinniss paints online images in glowing neon, revealing darkness as a contemporary cultural spectacle. Cy Gavin, Alexandria Smith, and Kenny Rivero dig into childhood memories, portraying the psychological fabrications of night, including folktale fears and fantasy fables.

Green Monster, by Shara Hughes, 2013. Oil, enamel, acrylic, spray paint on canvas, 60 × 54 inches. Image courtesy of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Other artists focus on the phenomenology of darkness as a perceptual experience. Jeronimo Elespe creates hazy celestial scenes using pointillistic dots of silvery-hued paint. Cynthia Daignault presents a series of small night scenes rendered in luscious applications of oil on linen. Patrick Bermingham’s gallery asks the viewer to allow time for the eyes to adjust to the dim light. I sit down and watch as two large-scale paintings slowly reveal the subtle blues and warm grays of a shadowy moonlit woodland. The obscure lighting leaves me wanting more as I’m unable to perceive their surface, materiality, or execution. I can’t help wonder how these paintings would look under a bright light. Would I be disenchanted? Perhaps. The sparse, moody light feels integral to the installations’ ability to theatrically transport me, if only for a moment, into the solitude of nature at night.