Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Capturing the sublime

Fine Arts

Soleil Noir (2014), 16mm film by Laurent Grasso, from Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin
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Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty, a new group exhibition now on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, is distinguished not only by the strength of the artworks, which stand on their own, but by its aspiration to encompass time, the incomprehensible vastness of space, the cosmos, elliptical galaxies and dying stars, not to mention the fear, terror and awe of the universe or the sublime, while transmuting those complex concepts for a modern sensibility. It's a big tent that accommodates the cerebral, multimedia, often outstanding works by 25 artists, scientists and thinkers, which hew to these grand ideas without being ponderous.

The show's themes, the province of sci-fi, novels, movies and anyone prone to inquiring into what's out there, are thought-provoking while teasing both the mind and the eye. And when is the last time a museum show simultaneously offered ruminations on wonderment and a contemplative way to spend an afternoon? Those ruminations, it should be said, are tethered to earthbound consensus reality by well-placed, explanatory text that amplifies select objects. The organizing principle of the exhibition, evolved from two questions percolating in the brain of CJM's Chief Curator Renny Pritikin: What does the Sublime, a construct that has its roots in the 18th-century, look like today? And what is our relationship to the concept in an age "dominated by information, uncertainty, irony and untrustworthy images?"

The Center is Everywhere, brass, cut lead crystal, electric lighting, hand-bound book by Josiah McElheny, from Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of Artware Editions, New York

That inability to trust our eyes in an era dominated by digital manipulation is exemplified by Vanessa Marsh's "Mountains," three photograms from her 2014 Falling series. Ostensibly depicting the night sky viewed in an unnamed wilderness, they're actually total fabrications, collages that combine cut paper, drawings and paintings on Mylar, the latter adding dashes of vibrant color suggesting distant nebula in a dense starscape. A different sleight of hand is at play in Daniel Crooks' "A Garden of Parallel Paths" (2012), a video loop that poses existential questions about aloneness and separation. Pedestrians going about their daily routines seem oblivious to the fact that they've entered the Twilight Zone courtesy of Crooks' slow-moving camera, which pans across parallel urban alleyways covered in graffiti, and more to the point, captures parallel lives as people pass through walls, magically appearing on the other side or disappearing into thin air. This work, one of several powerful videos here, adds to an ambience that Rod Serling certainly would have appreciated.

Local artist Lisa K. Blatt's video "clearest lake in the world" (2012), screened inside a darkened room, is a nocturnal vista of a glistening mountain lake in Patagonia illuminated solely by stars. Just outside that space is Christopher Woodcock's "The Great Western Divide" (2011), a stark black & white still that resembles an image sent back from a lunar probe rather than desolate, rugged Sierra terrain, pitch-black except for moonlight.

On the other side of the planet, documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, the poetic chronicler of extreme nature and human endeavor, uncovers wonders under the mysterious, virtually unexplored glacial blue seas of Antarctica. In a clip from his 2007 film Encounters at the End of the World, one can witness our little-known neighbors down below, like the flying clams, opening and closing their shells like clappers; a have-light, will-travel jellyfish lit up with neon from within and shimmying through the deep like a rogue chandelier on the run from its outlet; and, alone on an ice shelf, a spiky black critter that could pass for a medieval weapon of war.

Diabolical beauty, the kind of terrible beauty that has mutated into horror, can be found in San Francisco artist Michael Light's "100 Suns" (2003), images derived from military archive photographs of nuclear bomb explosions and the mushroom clouds their fearsome power produces. As of the mid-20th century, human beings have the capacity to annihilate the entire planet, when not destroying it by degrees in environmental disasters such as the one depicted in "Darvaza aka Doorway to Hell," a wall-size, digital color photograph, dated 2010, of a blazing inferno that resulted from an Armageddon-style mistake made by prospectors searching for oil in a natural gas field. A waking nightmare of a dystopian future that's already here, the site, a 230-foot-wide crater in the Turkmenistan desert, has been burning incessantly since 1971, and will probably do so for eternity.

Exploiting "tensions and fractures" in our collective assumptions of how the world works and the arbitrary nature of time, French artist Laurent Grasso's pensive 16mm film installation Soleil Noir (2014) is a meditation on an ancient catastrophe. The artist deployed drones to shoot aerial views of the ruins of Pompeii in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that erupted in 79 AD, burying the Roman city and its inhabitants in an avalanche of ash and pumice. Few who've visited the excavated site can forget the petrified remains of terrified people, struck down as they ran for their lives, who are now frozen in bleached fossilized rigor. The drones glide high above the mist-shrouded, still-simmering volcano, then swoop down, coasting through the archaeological site. Like the stray dog seen wandering the streets, our minds drift, concocting imaginary scenarios of oblivion to the sounds of an unsettling soundtrack that instills apprehension of a disaster that hasn't arrived, at least not yet. ( Through Sept. 20.)


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