Creatures plastic and painted -- as well as works by artists known and perhaps soon to be household names -- await visitors at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. A few recently added installations and exhibitions, along with some that have been up for a few months but deserve to be revisited, make for a worthwhile trek.
Lights in the night
The light coming from the paintings in “The Lure of the Dark” seems brighter than that emitted from the ceiling lights. While it takes a moment or two for our eyes to adjust, it helps make the case for an exhibition of contemporary paintings dedicated to exploring the ways in which the night seems to play with our minds -- making some scenes scarier then they would be in the day and others seem mythical or magical.
Take for instance Cy Gavin's "Idyll (Eclipse)," a piece painted on denim with the bottom half of a figure floating across a treacherous-looking ocean of green. The upper half of the figure is disappearing into a dark mist as a deep orange and blue-ringed moon glows in the background. It’s an unsettling piece, yet one that is hard to look away from.
Then there are stunning pieces such as Sam McKinniss’ “Northern Lights.” With its ultralight hues of purple and acid greens, it takes a stab at doing the natural phenomenon of the aurora borealis visual justice. In a way, it succeeds.
There are also the fairy-tale-esque works of Wilhelm Neusser. In perhaps his largest work in the exhibition, an idyllic nighttime forest scene turns eerie when one notices the second moon that glows in a greenish-yellow light. The piece, called “Nocturne/Doublemoon,” was inspired in part by Haruki Murakami’s novel “1Q84,” which explored distorted reality and supernatural phenomena, including the appearance of two moons.
TM Davy is another standout artist featured in the exhibit. The moon in the canvas of his sweeping piece “Fire Island Moonrise” glows brighter than seems natural, bouncing off the perfectly ringed clouds and casting a halo over the figures on the beach below. One figure, robed in rainbow-striped clothes, watches over another lying on the beach. A fox in the middle ground stands just outside the moon’s glow. The composition is reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy.” It’s difficult to tear oneself away from the glow of the work.
But that’s the thing with MASS MoCA: Move along, because there’s always more to see.
Sights and sounds
There’s something about the meticulous and comprehensive nature of Taryn Simon’s work that reminds of the carefully researched and poignant nature of Joan Didion’s writing.
Simon, an artist who works in photography, text, sculpture and performance, examines the human condition and social phenomenon.
In a bright white room lined with cases, Simon’s books lay open to certain pages below panes of glass and unturnable to viewers. That in itself plays on themes of “the divide between public and expert knowledge,” as well as on the way we view the authority of books.
Simon invites viewers to question the authority of written works, even though she’s done years of research in writing and creating them. For some, she’s obtained access and permission from the CIA, China’s State Council Information Office, Central Zionist Archives, Customs and Border Protection, Playboy Enterprises, Inc., NASA, and other entities.
In one book, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII,” she explores bloodlines through photographs and text.
The first page viewers can see beneath the pane of glass details the story of said “Living Man Declared Dead,” Shivdutt Yadav, who went to visit a local land-registry office in Uttar Pradesh and discovered that officials listed him as dead. Because of population growth, and the fact that land ownership was often passed down from generation to generation, the competition for land was fierce. People sometimes bribed officials to declare certain landowners dead so they could inherit the property. The story is chilling, as are others in Simon’s books.
Nearby, Simon explores the effects of applause and of a cold-water plunge in two immersive pieces.
In one, viewers walk into a room that seems pitch black from the outside. Once inside, they’re drawn to a pane of glass that looks into a white room emitting freezing air, with ice crystallizing the ground and a ladder of some sort taking center stage. It seems like a setting one would see on the set of a psychological thriller. Through the piece, titled “A Cold Hole,” Simon examines the human desire to seek a “quick fix” through the physical and psychic experience of the cold-water plunge.
Then just a room away, a piece called “Assembled Audience” takes viewers through a dark passage into an explosion of sound, rising from a few people clapping to hundreds applauding. Experiencing “Assembled Audience” is disorientating, an oscillation between the individual and the crowd -- or conformity and individuality.
Over the course of a year, Simon worked with producers in Columbus, Ohio, to collect recordings of applause at some of the city’s largest venues. Columbus is known as sort of a test city for product developers and political candidates, and applause -- a social act of support, celebration or participation -- is a compelling phenomenon to explore within that context.
If you don’t look up, you might miss Jarvis Rockwell’s installation called “Us.”
Rockwell, son of Norman Rockwell, has been collecting toys for decades, anything from Disney figures to dinosaurs and elephants. In “Us,” he positions them on rectangular glass panes suspended from the ceiling. The figures seem to be marching or moving forward, as the panes of glass form a sort of staircase. As the artist said in a statement, the toys seem to be “going on to glory,” as they ascend toward the ceiling.
While you’re there
There are a nearly overwhelming number of works and exhibits to see at MASS MoCA. But if you go, be sure to check out “Sol LeWitt: Structures,” a selection of the artist’s 3-D works. The exhibition celebrates the 10th anniversary of “Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing Retrospective,” also on exhibit at MASS MoCA.
For information, visit massmoca.org.