“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
A single sentence from Anne Frank encapsulates Manifest Gallery’s “DARK: Shadows, Nightscapes, and Darkness” exhibition.
From a pool of’ 359 works by 103 artists representing five countries, 30 states, and the District of Columbia, the blind jury selected 17 pieces by 15 artists. The artists’ brief was to “submit works, which address the theme of Dark, including any manner of interpretation, from literal to symbolic and philosophical.”
Dark, the absence of light, is almost universally understood to represent evil, death, mourning, sorrow, the sinister, chaos, mystery as opposed to enlightenment. We talk about the dark side, the dark arts, and black magic. On a lighter note, the wardrobe staple of a “little-black-dress” communicates sophistication.
In William Linthicum’s pastel-on-paper Salève, La Nuit, the moon sits high in the sky, above a butte that drops off in a measured way. The top of the bluff is touched with white (snow?), creating a distinctive horizon line. Tempestuous clouds sweep up, and a muscular cloud rushes up to the moon. It’s impossible to tell if the moon is waxing or waning, emerging from this dark cloudscape or being drawn into it. The scene is sublime in the tradition of late 18th– and 19th-century romanticism.
Elsa Munoz explores similar territory with her moody beach scene: Nightscape 21. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she works in series that have focused on forests, fire, tornadoes, figurative subjects, and the night. She uses nature to explore “larger themes such as beauty, power/powerlessness, the unconscious, fear, death, and rebirth.” 2
In Munoz’s Nightscape 21, a line of waves rolling into shore divides the composition roughly in half, the inky sky given just a bit more space than the depths of the sea. As the water becomes shallower, the color also lightens until the water becomes foam on a sandy beach. This reading is plausible, but the painting edges toward the abstract.
In the solarplate Noirs II, Donald Furst gives the viewer a stark and graphic depiction of an unadorned white (at least light colored) metal railing, standing out against the walls of a darkened stairwell. There is no clue as to where these stairs lead, but I could imagine climbing those steps in a parking garage and feeling alone and unsafe. I would be at once hopeful that I was not alone, but also fearful that I might not be.
Light is key to dramatizing this nondescript structure. Light pours in from an outside source, be it sunshine or artificial, but it is blocked by the crossbars of a window or opening. It is the negative that defines the positive.
Furst found an urban scene for his study of light and dark, but Andrew Arkell discovered an equally dramatic and graphic view outside the city. Just as Furst’s subject is ordinary, so is Arkell’s Barn Wall. Diagonals of black and white crisscross against a backdrop of horizontal stripes of dark timber, separated by narrow lines of daylight.
The sharp contrast between dark and light transforms these unexceptional structures into sophisticated architecture.
It doesn’t require pitting the ends of the spectrum against each other to make a statement. Jordan Kornreich exploits the middle using a luscious range of grays in his charcoal-on-paper Moving Again.
This quiet and elegant palette lends gravitas to a chaotic kitchen scene. The room is being packed up in a higgledy-piggledy fashion for yet another move. Some books have been pulled out of the bookshelf and are stacked on the floor, ignoring the empty box next to them ready to be filled. Arrayed on the floor are a basketball, dustpan and broom, a two-liter water bottle, a dish for the dog that almost didn’t make it into the composition, cut off as he is by the painting’s bottom edge. An open laptop sits on the counter; its glowing rectangular screen is “partnered” by a Windex bottle, making an odd couple. The glass cleaner is set on a draped cloth that, although elegantly draped, is just a rag. The idea of yet another move, that there is no permanence, recalls the 18th-century Dutch and Flemish vanitas paintings, which remind viewers of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death.
Most of the works on view are tone poems expressed in a wide range of tints (with white added) and shades (with black) of black and white, noncolors. Less Fun by Joseph Kameen takes a different approach, one that is color-full. Kameen’s stylized kitchen is lit by an overhead fixture casting a conical light that functions like a spotlight and lightens only a sharply defined portion of the brilliantly colored domestic scene.
The room is dominated by a neon-orange table with a hole just off center with a golf flag the same color of the tabletop. The hole focuses a circle of light on the floor in the shadow of the rectangular table. An odd-looking fairway-green slide runs up from the floor to the center of the table. On the slide, which looks like a lolling tongue, is a neon-orange ball that may be sliding down or moving upward, propelled by a stroke by an insomniac golfer outside the painting.
Kameen contrasts the colors of the setting in light and in the dark. When lit, the striped wallpaper is coral and pink, but becomes two shades of army green when in shadow. The tile floor is coral and pink when illuminated, but eggplant and hunter green when not.
Less Fun stands out in an exhibition dominated by the noncolors of white and black. It is likely the least expected, but it may be the one that makes us think the most about what dark means.
–Karen S. Chambers
“DARK: Shadows, Nightscapes, and Darkness,” through December 6, 2019. Manifest Gallery, 2727 Woodburn Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45206, 513-861-3638, manifestgallery.org. Tues.-Fri. noon-7 pm, Sat. noon-5 pm, or by special appointment.
1 Salève, a mountain in French Prealps, is called the balcony of Geneva.
2 “Artist’s Statement,” elsamunoz.com.