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NOCTURNES: From Dusk Till Dawn Works Biography

Nocturnes:  From Dusk Till Dawn

One of the most evocative depictions of nighttime enchantment is Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic painting The Starry Night. The familiar swirling trails and halos of starlight perfectly express the sense of awe he must have experienced at the scene. But Van Gogh was not alone in finding this an alluring subject. Before electric lights were commonplace, many artists used candles, lanterns, or simply beams of light to bring dramatic, mysterious, and awe inspiring effects into their compositions. Artists as diverse as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Georges de la Tour became specialists in nocturne-style painting long before it was ever conceptualized as such.

Our modern perspective comes from expatriate American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler who coined the term “nocturne” to describe one of his preferred painting styles. Whistler made a variety of nocturnes, but it was the subdued tonality of his celebrated misty, water-dominated landscapes that made the most significant impact on early 20th century American painting. His approach mirrored what artists had always recognized: that dramatic lighting, whether in a nighttime sky, a partially lit interior, or a moody landscape, adds a distinctive aura to a painting.

Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928), a San Francisco-born artist who lived much of his life in Monterey, was a renowned nocturne painter. He was attracted to Monterey’s historic Spanish-style architecture, and achieved wide recognition for his landscapes of white-walled adobes glowing under a moonlit sky. A romantic nostalgia for the past suffuses many of his works, including the old, deserted farmstead he depicts in Abandoned Corral by the Gate to the Hacienda. Also drawn to plein air nocturnes was painter, designer, and craftsman Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932), who after traveling throughout the world settled in Santa Barbara. In his pure, almost minimalistic landscapes, like Moonrise, York Harbor, Maine, he blends bands of subdued color to indicate both the cloudy sky above, and the quiet sea of reflected moonlight below.

Following in the tradition of these nineteenth century plein air pioneers, contemporary Santa Cruz artist Paul Roehl evokes a similarly hushed and solitary air in the golden light of his Tonalist-inspired landscape, Moonlight on the Water. Land and light remain, but the watery glow is replaced by high desert skies in Phoenix artist Ed Mell’s modernist Midnight Cloud Movement. Mell’s strong planes of violet, lavender, and turquoise define a dynamic nighttime landscape centered on banks of towering clouds rimmed in white, which gleam with reflected moonlight. Bruce Everett’s painting, Clearing, also centers on clouds, but this Central California artist makes the area’s rolling hills his locale. The moon does not appear, but a break in the cloud reveals a radiant multi-layered vista glimpsed from behind a shadowy screen of trees.

Human presence alters the landscape in a dramatic way, bringing to it the familiarity of daily experience. Monterey artist Warren Chang is recognized for his portraits and his celebrated series depicting Salinas area farmworkers. His painting Carrot Harvest encounters a group of workers shaded from the sun by visors and hooded sweatshirts as they dig the harvest. A ray of light escapes through a break in the darkening bank of clouds above them, drawing attention to the waning day and providing a glimpse of orange sunset. Humanity’s impact is apparent even without its obvious presence in Smoking Clouds, by San Francisco Bay Area artist Deanna Forbes. Her semi-abstract approach updates the nocturne to an urban setting of dusky clouds, dark waters, and a plume of factory smoke illuminated by the picturesque glow of city lights.

Southern California artist Ann Lofquist explores a very different sort of urban setting in her nocturne Evening, Ventura. Despite its obvious modernity, she brings a romantic sensibility to bear on this serenely atmospheric panorama. Suffused with the unmistakable shades of a lilac and rose twilight, we float above a secure enclave comfortably ensconced between its surrounding hills and the edge of the sea. Another esteemed Southern California artist, Peter Alexander is perhaps better known for his 1960s-era resin sculptures, although these nighttime prints and paintings are equally significant. Alexander’s views of airport light patterns and atmospheric conditions are strikingly inventive. The tilting perspective and intense red and black palette in his monoprint LAX Two, evokes a sense of imbalance and oncoming danger. In LAX XVI, a rising plume of thick smoke further blackens the darkened sky, dominating and enhancing the sense of danger that hovers with it high above a grid of golden airport lights.

Bringing the nocturne into a much grittier reality, Santa Cruz artist and University Professor Frank Galuszka’s painting Beirut, centers on a dark scene of urban violence. A fire blazing in the distance looms over a damaged city to compete with nature’s end of day sunset display. Also centered on fire, celebrated Monterey Bay Area artist David Ligare makes his blaze the surreal focus in Fire in the Desert. Like an ancient legend, flames rise up from among a field of small stones that radiate back its reflected light. Beyond the blaze the sun has set, and far in the distance the green-gold sky lingers over the horizon.

New York artist Frederick Brosen’s Coney Island summons the cooler temperament of a city nocturne; a lone customer strolling past at the end of day, just before the nighttime crowds arrive. His graphite and watercolor paints the scenario with exceptional detail, and captures that hushed moment when day has finally disappeared but night has not yet arrived. Marc Trujillo follows a similar route in his 20915 Roscoe Blvd. The Los Angeles artist deepens the shadows of the oncoming night, and draws our eye into the perfectly realized restaurant interior, then out under the neon glare, through the parking lot, and into the distant city where faint remnants of the day still endure. Following the advancing darkness, California artist Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin turns a few basic forms and a precise palette into the moment, just before total darkness, when we first glimpse the new moon. The extended horizontal format of her painting, Studio Window, its tilted perspective, abbreviated section of roofline, and singular cloud, work together seamlessly to project a deceptively simple arrangement that delivers a powerful impact. The darkness of night is total in David Hines’s quietly vivid slice of early morning emptiness, High Vista 3 am. The Southern California artist reveals a place and time that most people rarely experience, but so clearly does he inhabit the space, that we know its silence and feel the visceral effects of that invisible electric light on an empty stretch of road.

Nocturnes also make appealing avenues for portraiture and figurative subjects. San Francisco Bay Area figurative artist Carla Crawford makes her painting Eventide, especially noteworthy by depicting the subject from an unorthodox viewpoint. The sleeping woman’s shadowed bedclothes emphasize the back of her bare neck and shoulders, which seem lit by moonlight. In the same way as day counters night, Crawford’s portrait upends ordinary expectations, and gives the attention not to the subject’s face (day) as usual, but to her back (night) instead. Also from the San Francisco Bay Area, artist Noah Buchanan sets a nude young woman in a chair by a glass-paned door in The Night Kitchen. In an otherwise brightly lit room, an eerie darkness seeps in through dim shadows reflected in the glass door. The disturbing contrast of this external darkness to the bright interior seems amplified by the unsettling expression on the face of the seated nude, who looks directly at the viewer. A more symbolically styled work comes from Northern California artist David Molteni. In a gracefully rendered Self-Portrait, he refers back to classic Tonalist hues and composition, placing himself in the foreground of a seascape under the halo of new moon. Monterey Bay area artist Chris Leib’s more straightforward portrait, Past Iteration develops the character of a brooding young man out of contrasting shadow and light, as does Brooklynite David Molesky in his portrait of a woman, Lullaby of Birdland. With passages that shift between bright light and deep shadow, his subject drifts, lost in thought.

More than any other creature, owls are associated with the night. Monterey Bay Area artist Mari Kloeppel, a renowned animal portraitist, creates a stunning portrait in Barn Owl in Manzanita. Unerringly developed out of layers of careful brushstrokes, it confirms her uncanny ability to depict each nuance and feature of a creature without sacrificing its individuality; and her owl’s expressive face radiates all the intelligence and curiosity of its species. Another Monterey Bay Area artist, Andrea Johnson also favors birds and small night creatures as her subjects. In Trumpet Vines and Frogs, she evokes a steamy nocturne scene with vivid orange blooms perfectly positioned to lure an unsuspecting insect into frog territory. Johnson’s hypnotic vista lures the viewer as well, drawn in to explore her otherworldly setting. Otherworldly territory might also describe the work of Northern California artist Holly Lane. Her paintings read like ancient tales, set as panels into altar-like frames she constructs and carves herself. In Unfoldment she presents five singular works that depict water and earth, plant and animal, the work of humans, light from fire and light from the moon. The images are delicately detailed in black and white and in the central panel, painted with subtle hints of color. All are encased in one enclosing carved wood cabinet which, when opened, gives access to the enchanted world within.

Interiors and still lifes lend another perspective on the nocturne when they are composed in low or ambient light. Pamela Carroll and Kirstine Reiner Hansen, both residents of the Monterey Peninsula, have each focused on a single conch shell. Carroll’s painting Shell on Box details a perfect pearly conch resting on a red lacquer box set in a shadowy alcove. The shell’s surface gleams—projecting a rich opalescence reminiscent of a moonlit evening. In Reiner Hansen’s Vacancies No. 13, a starker shell sits partially obscured in shadow on an old wooden crate. The background falls away into darkness but the bare blue-white of the conch stands in for a cold winter moon. Gillian Pederson-Krag brings a similarly subdued ambience to her interior, Window Still Life. The winter twilight collects on a windowsill of seaside souvenirs, reflecting the last of daylight as it gathers from the dusky landscape outside.

The exhibition Nocturnes: From Dusk Till Dawn illuminates the wide and inclusive range that the nocturne genre affords. Starting with the Monterey Bay Area’s early plein air painters, it moves forward to showcase new work by significant, contemporary artists exploring the realm from a variety of approaches. A focus on night, its dusk and dawn transitions, and on darkness itself, both as absence of light and as subject, is rare in the general scheme of art making. The dark often goes unappreciated or suppressed— unrecognized as an equally valuable aspect of life experience. Nocturnes define a fascinating territory where artists can explore mystery, drama, menace, or even transcendence in their work.

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