“As light fades and the shadows deepen, all petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears, and I see things as they are in great strong masses: the buttons are lost, but the sitter remains; the sitter is lost, but the shadow remains; the shadow is lost, but the picture remains. And that, night cannot efface from the painter’s imagination.” – James Whistler
The night: rich in mystery and symbolic potential, conjuring thoughts on the cosmos and the unknown, prompting plunges into the abysms of the self. Handmaiden of sleep and dream, accomplice of desire and melancholy, whose cloak of darkness conceals both beauty and death in its folds.
Cob is proud to present ‘Night Light’, a group exhibition reconnoitring contemporary painters’ approaches to the night: approaches shaped by the political and environmental concerns of our present moment as well as a shared understanding of the night-time scene as the site of a rupture with the grand traditions of ‘plein air’ painting.
Connecting with precedents like that of the ‘nocturne’ – a musical term first used in relation to visual art by James Whistler in the 1870s – ‘Night Light’ brings together contemporary depictions of night in urban and non-urban environments. The mute glow of a train station, the plastic glare of a nightclub scene, the fluorescent cones of a car’s headlights replace the gas lamps, candles and firework displays of Whistler’s nocturnal cityscape. And if Whistler’s use of musical vocabulary – ‘symphony’, ‘harmony or ‘arrangement’ – was intended to privilege tone and composition over narrative content, then these new paintings take the form of similarly poetic responses to our contemporary experience of the dark, cultivating a ‘dreamy, pensive mood’ attuned to the anxieties of our own age.
These explorations of the night-time in paint also point back beyond the nineteenth-century city, towards deeper art-historical traditions relating to the celestial bodies, the supernatural, and human spirituality: the idea of the starlit sky as a map to navigate both our exterior and interior worlds. In the works included in ‘Night Light’, this relates in particular to a sense of the nocturnal scene as a moonscape whose contours describe emotional experiences that can be felt and seen, but evade other forms of articulation.
Almost every civilisation and religion has incorporated the moon into its belief system, looking up at the night sky and ascribing narrative characteristics to this strange moving object that continually waxes and wanes. An uncanny observer suspended in the vault above our heads, its presence acting as a reminder that we are ourselves just floating in a measureless space: that the points of the compass are mere conventions that soften our sense of cosmic homelessness.
The mysterious rhythms of the moon have been contemplated in works stretching back to antiquity, tapping into the rich tradition of artist melancholics, of ‘lunatics’ and ‘moonstruck’ lovers. In ‘Night Light’, it is one among many focal points for the sense of difference characterised by the night, and channelled by these artists into a set of beautiful and thought-provoking images.