The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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FEB 2019 Issue

The Lure of the Dark: Contemporary Painters Conjure the Night

Installation view: The Lure of the Dark, Mass MoCA, 2019. Three works by Sam McKinniss. Courtesy Mass MoCA.

North Adams
March 3, 2018 – March 10, 2019

Depending on who you ask, when the sun goes down, it's time to head home or hit the streets. The nighttime is for resting up for tomorrow, seeing a loved one, working late or dancing until daybreak. It's also for delinquents to slink around casing a joint, and for bigots to hide as they carry out hate crimes.

The massive, rousing exhibition The Lure of the Dark: Contemporary Painters Conjure the Night at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) traces the double-edged turns the night can take. Curated by Susan Cross, the exhibition is bracing in how it rises and falls over three large sections, with nearly 50 paintings by 14 artists. The result is a sensitive, vivid exhibition, at times glamorous, then bleak⎯boiling over in intense, conflicting moments.

The Lure of the Dark is dimly lit, and the works are hung on pale lavender walls. As one enters, Cy Gavin's 15-foot-tall Untitled (Bash Bish Falls) (2018) rushes at the viewer like the blue, icy winds it depicts. The perspective is all off: dented and sliced up icebergs stand beside dead trees extending toward a black horizon, the latter etched flat on a separate shard of ice. Certain spots of the canvas—wrinkled and soaked in seductive midnight blue—read like seeping bruises, which is fitting, since the painting's title Untitled (Bash Bish Falls ) refers to the name of these falls, which themselves are named after Bash-Bish, a Mohican woman who was falsely accused of adultery and then lashed to a canoe and thrown over the falls.

Cy Gavin, Untitled (Bash Bish Falls), 2018. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 161 x 131 inches. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy Mass MoCA.

The night suggested by Gavin—one of a silky substance both dangerous and tempting—is what connects his works with those of Sam McKinniss. American Idol (Lana) (2018) and Northern Lights (2017) shine with a similar bruised beauty but here it is of fast fame and heartbreak, the kind we think we can relate to in pop songs, then inadvertently strive after. The surface of Northern Lights appears burnished and still wet, as if ignoring the arctic cold of the Canadian night; electric green swirls burn white and flare up in an abstraction of the aurora borealis. McKinnis makes you feel as if you're right there, but that's a well-dressed lie: the source image is from Instagram.

I don't care much for Shara Hughes's splashy landscapes in this exhibition, with their saccharine colors and predictable perspectives; however, her figurative Green Monster (2013) carries us into the next section nicely. Two crying bodies stand before a swamp with a path of light partially opened behind them. Loose, barely congealing brushstrokes add to their desolation and recall Adam and Eve banished from Eden, though the former's grief is completely unconvincing. A single, blue-black tear blends into his plastic face as if pasted on, and he holds a tarred cigarette that swirls up into a mulchy, mustard smoke. Hughes perfectly matches technique to feeling here, using a "what happens, happens" painting style to convey the figures' hopelessness. We see Jeronimo Elespe, Kenny Rivero and William Binnie do the same in the exhibition's middle—and best—section.

Elespe has just four, modest-sized paintings in The Lure of the Dark, but they are all exquisite. Laying flat strips of canvas over them, he threads vibrant, beaded lines between the slits, slowly contouring into figures. In Hesperides (2017), a woman's fingers wrap around and meld into a goblet, fading faster than the grainy silhouettes in Elespe's other paintings. His subjects twinkle and reflect among dark sapphire backdrops, like light striking a spider web after rain.

By contrast, Binnie's paintings—barely played scratch-offs on cream-white canvases—stun with their restraint. But this is no lottery. Whether it be the wrinkles in a recently donned Ku Klux Klan hood or the matted fur of a rabid dog, Binnie reveals images that confront the latent, violent racism of the American South both literally and metaphorically. In Black Blizzard (2016), yellowing lights pierce fragmented scenes of a matte black night—could they be from a diner, or a tailing car, fast approaching? Either way, it doesn't feel good; Binnie paints the dark as a place where sinister acts hide. The Vine that Ate the South (2018) pairs swarming kudzu with a snaking flame to critique fears of the invading "other." Green seeps into the scenes' edges and single drips dot the canvas, as if leaking reality. These aren't just some tableaux; Binnie's sparse composition forces for us to ask what we can do about all the unlit tiki torches and xenophobes in hiding.

And then there's Kenny Rivero, whose bustling streetscapes add swagger and grit to works reminiscent of Roberto Matta or Yves Tanguy. In It Happened on the Corner (2014) a man lies sick on the ground as pairs of scuffed oxfords walk past. The sidewalk is painted to look like board game tiles. A smoke-stained sliver filled with monsters projects out of his belly like a magnified microscope illustration, and combusts at the bottom in a brilliantly painted fire so thick and crusted it looks whittled. Ask About Me (2017) is a knockout. A nervous, coded pictograph of one's personal interiors, little crosses mark graves in the dark among pyramids, faceted gems, and empty cars. Towards the bottom, Rivero has blacked out the dotted yellow lines of a sharp elbow turn in a road and scattered fences and barred windows over the painting to suggest a bare, bleak state. Stars, or asterisks, dot the canvas like things left unsaid. "Ask about me," the painting's looming eyes ask. "What do you expect me to say?" it responds.

Installation view: The Lure of the Dark, Mass MoCA, 2019. Works by Josephine Halvorson. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy Mass MoCA.

The Lure of the Dark ends with Cynthia Daignault, Josephine Halvorson, and Noah Davis. While Daignault conveys what fumbling around in the dark with a single, weak flashlight can feel like, Halvorson's Night Windows (2015) portrays the thickness of the air and cold frost over window glass. Davis's Painting for My Dad (2011) shows a figure holding a lamp needed only for this moment: reminding us that though the night can be alluring, vicious, or devotional—it is always temporary.


Alex Jen

Alex Jen is a writer based in Chicago.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

All Issues