The Energy of Darkness

My computer program has very fixed ideas about what constitutes a portrait (taller than wide) and what constitutes a landscape (wider than tall).  In art, however, the application of such rigid categories is not helpful.  A Monterey exhibit of moonlight paintings by American artist Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932), for instance, would seem to fall under the category of landscape—lots of sky, lots of ocean, sometimes a few trees, always a moon—yet these enthralling, recently rediscovered works also possess certain qualities more commonly found in still lifes, abstractions, and even portraits.

These are exceedingly quiet paintings.  The ocean does not surge or even ripple; wind does not pass through the trees.  Even the blackest storm seems to unfurl in a state of hush.  De Forest suffered from hearing loss as a young man and he eventually grew deaf, which may have contributed to his decision to leave New York and its thriving gallery scene and settle in Santa Barbara.  He produced thousands of plein-air paintings, with over 400 moonlight paintings alone, and one gets the sense from the Museum of Monterey’s small, attractive exhibit that the isolation and the quiet felt in these paintings make them self-portraits—the inner self—as much as landscapes.  These are still lifes of the soul.

Some of the paintings move toward a form of raw abstraction that would not be seen in American art for over a generation.  In the undated “Storm Brewing in Moonlight,” the image is barely recognizable as landscape.  The sky is mottled with dark clouds, the earth is brown and black, a roiling swirl.  The moon is present in fragments.

In the 1905 “Moonlight on the Shore,” both sea and sky are a nearly identical gunmetal gray, looking ahead to the horizontal bands of Rothko.  “Montecito Peak in Moonlit Fog” (1909) is also constructed as a series of layers—a gray lowering sky, the gentle slopes of a pale mountain, a green meadow with a few trees and bushes—lending the work an Asian, meditative quality.

These paintings are also striking in their absolute absence of story.  In the placid and gauzy “Twilight Moon with Reddish Sky” (1902), the sea is as still as a lake, the peachy colors a kind of floating, drowsy veil.  Nothing happens, nothing moves.  All is calm.

Given the acute delicacy of these works and their special atmosphere of quiet, it was a bit jarring to be forced to listen to the cacophony of sound from an exhibit celebrating the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival on the museum’s lower level.  Also distracting are the identical frames that seem to entomb these sensitive images rather than support them.  Still, it is a testimony to the paintings’ subtle power that within a few minutes spent in their company I was able to tune out the sounds coming from below, ignore the streaky metallic frames, and just concentrate on the art.

For in such works as “Moonlight in Black Sky, York Harbor, Maine” (1907), de Forest has truly captured the energy of darkness, both gloomy and captivating, reflecting Romantic attitudes of the time but imbued with his own personal stamp.

“Collecting Moonlight” is but one of a generous cornucopia of exhibits, programs and activities associated with the Second Annual Art in the Adobes Festival, whose theme this year is “Rediscovery: Monterey Artists at Home and Abroad.”  The Festival will include weekend exhibitions in historic buildings in garden settings, art demonstrations, activities for children, plein-air artists competitions, and a parade of international dance costumes.  Of special note is the three-day only presentation of a long-lost WPA mural by M. Evelyn McCormick, which was discovered rolled up in a Sacramento warehouse and has been carefully restored.  “McCormick is famous for introducing French-style impressionism to Northern California in the 1890s,” says Julianne Burton-Carvajal, one of the festival’s principal organizers.  “In this bold mural, painted in her mid-sixties, she shows her modernist muscle.”

Art in the Adobes Festival Weekend, September 13-16.  For tickets and complete information visit the Festival website.

“Collecting Moonlight: The Night Paintings of Lockwood de Forest,” at the Museum of Monterey, 5 Custom House Plaza, through October 14, 2012.  A reception in conjunction with Art in the Adobes will be held on Friday, September 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Note: I am publishing this blogpost, which I wrote two weeks ago, from Paris, France where I am on vacation; just this morning I learned the sad, bewildering news that the Museum of Monterey will no longer be headed by Lisa Coscino, who did so much to rescue MOM and transform it into a vital local institution.  Anyone who cares about the arts in Monterey can only be disappointed and even angry at this turn of events, and sorry to think of the stimulating exhibits, like the one reviewed above, that will no longer be scheduled.