SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Museum of Art is bringing the dark to light.
With two shows exhibited in conjunction with one another, museum curators are focusing on nighttime scenes from the late 19th century to present day.
The first, which opened on Saturday and will remain up until April, takes a dive into paintings, prints and photographs in the NMMA collection. Its companion exhibit showcasing contemporary night photography will open next month.
The exhibits will also share an educational station at the museum from November-April, offering night-related activities from both the scientific and artistic realms.
According to Curator of 20th-century Art Christian Waguespack, the current exhibition, “Wait Until Dark,” features rarely seen or never-before-shown work by a who’s who of New Mexico artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Gustave Baumann, Cady Wells and more. He views the themed show as a chance to show the collection in a “fresh new light.”
“Or not light, in this case,” Waguespack corrected himself.
The art, which spans from the late 19th century to contemporary, falls under the “nocturne” artistic motif. Though the phrase was originally used to designate night-themed music compositions, Waguespack said the word nocturne started to become part of descriptions for visual art in the late 19th century.
He described the works selected for “Wait Until Dark” as falling generally into two categories. One showcases works that use night as a motif or mood, or to show the “formal engagement” of trying to create night scenes.
“It’s a tricky thing to do from an academic or trained artist standpoint, to actually get that look right, is a hard thing,” said Waguespack, citing the difficulty of working in the dark while still getting the colors and compositions to correctly depict what the artist sees.
Works in this section include traditional nighttime landscapes and imagery of boats sailing in the evening by 20th-century artists, along with contemporary Santa Fe photographer Cara Romero’s photo that uses the iconic neon sign at Española’s Saints & Sinners liquor store as a backdrop.
There’s also a range of moods or feelings artists can elicit through nocturnes, Waguespack explained, pointing out more spooky works, such as a Veronica Helfensteller lithograph of what looks like a haunted house, and James Stoval Morris’ “Witches of Chimayó.” On the other hand, O’Keeffe’s “Landscape at Lake George,” he says, feels very serene.
“It could eerie, it could be dramatic, it could be peaceful, it could be meditative,” he said. “All of these different things come out.”
The other half of the show looks at the night as a “placemaker,” with works that depict events that happen in the dark. These range from prints and paintings of Native American ceremonies by Baumann, Gene Kloss and Ira Moskowitza, and Will Shuster’s 1934 oil painting of a night mass held at the Cross of the Martyrs to a painting of a Ku Klux Klan rally by Louis Ribak.
Ribak, a 20th-century Taos-based artist who painted scenes of the Klan while living in New York, covered a subject matter that has a “double meaning” for darkness, both literally and figuratively. Waguespack explained that Ribak was attuned to the broader question of why meetings like the Klan’s were held at night.
He also noted a 1920 Gerald Cassidy sketch that will be on display. The image, originally sketched for a mural at the Santa Fe Country Club, is of a Spanish dance.
“So, the idea of when do we party, when do we let loose?” said Waguespack. “We do it at night most often, right? Why is that?”
Capturing the ‘counter-intuitive’
The photography exhibit that opens in mid-December, “Shots in the Dark,” takes a different artistic direction, according to Curator of Photography Kate Ware.
She said she compiled a group of “atmospheric” works from four Southwest artists who are primarily interested in the landscape at night.
The show offers a series of images by Tuscon-based Ken Rosenthal from a Washington forest and Michael Lundgren’s large images of the desert, all taken in the middle of the night.
Lundgren, from Phoenix, takes what Ware described as minimal subject matter, like a snake or various plants, and makes it “transformative.” Photos from around urban San Diego – in front of homes, in an empty parking lot and close to the highway, for example – come from scott b. davis.
Christopher Colville, also from Phoenix, uses the chemistry of photography and does not use a camera to make his images. On photo paper, Ware explained, he creates explosions with gunpowder. The result is abstract shots of colorful light being produced onto the paper.
She described the practice of taking pictures in the middle of the night as “counter-intuitive,” considering that the word for the result – photograph – comes from Greek origins that translate to “writing with light.” In an art form that depends on light, these artists are intentionally limiting it.
“They’re pushing the boundaries of the medium in that way; what can it do? What can I make it do? What can I make it capture?” said Ware.
A joint reception for “Wait Until Dark” and “Shots in the Dark” – as well as a forthcoming exhibition on 20th-century sculpture – will be held on Jan. 4 from 5-7 p.m. The shows will remain up until the end of April and the end of March, respectively.