Art & Art History
When Darkness Falls
Artists: Melina Ausikaitis, John Beasley, Sean Bluechel, Slater Bradley, Olaf Breuning, Sarah Conaway, Madeline Davy and Megan Pflug, Deva Graf, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Christa Parravani, Brad Phillips, L.A. Raeven, Dawn Reed, Sterling Ruby, Kirsten Stoltmann, and Carl Warnick
When Darkness Falls is a curated exhibition and publication, which centers on artworks that incorporate dark imagery—a world without light and life. Much work with this sort of imagery is rooted conversely in a place that is conceptual, cool, and often based in the history of art where images of mortality (memento mori) are prominent. Classic symbols, like those of skulls and candles, are now associated in contemporary culture with rock music and Goth culture, which can overshadow the historical references and become easily dismissible. The use of techniques such as chiaroscuro has been commented on, but those comments no longer have the same intensity, shadowed by the rhetoric of art history and critique. When Darkness Falls explores these Gothic ideas in contemporary art and embellishes them in such a way as to allow the work to be looked at literally in a new light.
This exhibition, curated by Melanie Schiff and Kristen VanDeventer, explores darkness, ranging from images derived from the gothic to its operation as metaphor for issues of mortality. Fifteen artists present work in a variety of media including video, painting, photography, and sculpture in an exhibition space designed to accent the darkness.
As Annette Ferrara wrote in her essay Laughter in the Face of the Apocalypse:
Surely it ’s not a mistake that ‘avant-garde’ is a word snatched from military parlance. Artist as frontline soldier, shaking with rage and emboldened by hubris, running into certain dirty awful death. The sacrificial lamb, scapegoat, and human shield, whose death means the prolonging of some other soldier ’s life and enabling the forward march towards victory. Jackson Pollock as a cowboy/soldier astride a splatter-painted, eight-cylindered horse of the apocalypse. Even today, awash as we are in fluorescent glare of reality T.V. ’s omnipresent cameras that make us all look small and foolish, we still hold on to this conception of this larger-than-life, Romantic, noble artist. It is courageous, and somewhat foolish, to confront The Void, the nothingness of the meaning of existence, the blank canvas, blank tape, blank page, empty gallery, the vastness of outer space. We crave structure. An all-black canvas, a direct action, even a simple straight line drawn hesitantly will do—just about anything besides nothing is better. A relief.
As Darkness Falls was commissioned as part of the 2003 At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago
Female Gargoyle, 2000
Ugly Yelp, 2000
Madeline Davy and Megan Pflug
Rainbow Pyramid Candle, 2004
Candle, concrete, yarn
White Love, 2001
DVD and mini DV tape, 45:00 min.
2 Framed inkjet prints, 30 x 40 in.
Drawing, collage on paper, 52 x 52 in.
Sterling Ruby and Kirsten Stoltmann
Behind the Pedestal, 2003
Laughter in the Face of the Apocalypse
I ’m so depressed. Seriously. I have dark thoughts sometimes. Whenever I ’m on the rooftop of a building, I ’m always drawn to the edge. I peer over, lightheaded, flush with a sudden surge of adrenaline, my hands glazed with a thin film of sweat. I contemplate hurling myself into the air, arms spread wide and head flung back, wild-eyed, in homage to Yves Klein. Only my inevitability would not be a photo-collaged permanent contemplation of The Void, but a dull thwack at the corner of Height, Weight, and Gravity. Thanatos 1. Eros O. But isn ’t that always the score?
Artists have dark thoughts, too. They battle the death instinct Thanatos just like all of us, but they seem to be able to harness Eros, the life-giver, in a way that makes the inevitable score—for Thanatos is a buff god with a competitive spirit and the ultimate raison d ’etre—tied for most of the innings. Life is short, art is long, and artists are in good with the odds-makers. Saturn may indeed devour his children, but artists are at least able to make a picture of it, temporarily halting its hold on us.
The vocabulary of death in art includes memento mori and vanitas. All life must end and it is one of the duties of the artist to remind the rest of us that this is so. Memorialize death and at the same time refute it through art ’s creation. Art is a big “fuck you” to the dark forgetfulness of time. It ’s the spasmodic laughter in the face of the apocalypse. The hurried sex had in the bathroom of the funeral parlor.
Surely it ’s not a mistake that avant-garde is a word snatched from military parlance. Artist as front-line soldier, shaking with rage and emboldened by hubris, running into certain dirty awful death. The sacrificial lamb, scapegoat, and human shield, whose death means the prolonging of some other soldier ’s life and enabling the forward march towards victory. Jackson Pollock as a cowboy/soldier astride a splatter-painted, eight-cylinder horse of the apocalypse. Even today, awash as we are in fluorescent glare of reality TV ’s omnipresent cameras that make us all look small and foolish, we still hold on to the conception of this larger-than-life Romantic noble artist. It is courageous, and somewhat foolish, to confront The Void, the nothingness of the meaning of existence, the blank canvas, blank tape, blank page, empty gallery, the vastness of outer space. We crave structure. An all-black canvas, a direct action, even a simple straight line drawn hesitantly will do—just about anything besides nothing is better. A relief.
Art ’s hallowed, harrowing history is a long laundry list of manic-depressives, psychos, pervs, alcoholics and addicts, schizophrenics, neurotics, and paranoids. Not that other professions are free of these ailments, quite the contrary, but sometimes having a creative life means being beholden to the wild, brooding, unpredictable outcomes of synaptic mis-connections and mis-firings. At times, in fact, it means to crave and coddle and rely on them to give life shape and meaning, and to give inert visual matter the same treatment. A brief look at the last century yields the work of Yayoi Kusama, Henry Darger, Antonin Artaud, and Francis Bacon, among many others. Artists just don ’t seem to be as afraid of exploring the dark matter of the mind. While the rest of us timidly clutch flickering flashlights of protease inhibitors to vainly push away the encroaching gloom, artists put their arms out à la Frankenstein and push on undeterred. Their art is a nightshade, a belladonna, whose glossy berries can yield a visual atropine.
Primitive urges and so-called primitive cultures, both have been consulted by artists looking to revive their art-making practices—to get to the bare essentials of life. The Enlightenment, with its mission of distancing us from our animal instincts and the unpredictable cycles of nature, was supposed to drive away the darkness of superstition and compulsion with the white-hot light of logic and rationality. But civilization is often, at best, an ill-fitting robe of manners and sublimated desires, and artists can ’t help but peek underneath it for the naughty bits.
And what about real darkness? Think about chiaroscuro, sfumfato, and tenebroso—all words to describe the merging/emerging of visual forms from darkness. How Caravaggio, that murderer, painted robust figures who emerged, starkly high-lit out of deep, palatable darkness, as well as the metaphorical night of sin and despair, to confront their deeds and misgivings in a Baroque shadow play of faith. How lifelike they look enveloped in and formed by the inky black. Natural.
The constant vacillation between light and dark is central to life and one of the keystones of art. In the beginning, well, some say there was darkness, and when there was light, it was the first day. Order. Progression. The concepts of past, present, and future were born. Out of that darkness, thanks again to light, came form. Look inside the artist ’s studio and you ’ll see a Romantic mimicry, a sped up strobe-lit microcosm featuring the storm and stress of creation replayed daily in an endless loop.
Essay in response to the artworks on display in When Darkness Falls.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez.
McEvilley, Thomas. “Art in the Dark,” Apocalypse Culture, Adam Parfrey, ed. New York: Feral House, 1990, pp. 64-83.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
This essay was distributed in the gallery during the run of the exhibition.
When Darkness Falls is supported by the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Special thanks to the jury that selected the 2003 At The Edge projects: Danielle Gustafson-Sundell (artist and co-director of Deluxe Projects), Paul Ha (Executive Director, Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis), Kevin Kaempf (artist), Jennifer Reeder (artist and UIC faculty member), and Lorelei Stewart (Director, Gallery 400).
Postcard: When Darkness Falls