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Wednesday, Jul 1 2015

In the film Mr. Turner, actor Timothy Spall — who in Harry Potter famously portrayed a low-life Death Eater named Wormtail — inhabits the skin of 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner, and does everything that Turner did in his later life, including spitting at his own paintings and harrumphing at his fellow artists. The real-life Turner could be as prickly as Spall's Wormtail, and his artwork as alienating and derisive.

One of Turner's most vicious critics, in fact, referred to him as a hapless animal, writing in 1836 that the then-61-year-old was obsessed with splattering sunlight in his paintings, and had mentored a new generation of painters to do the same: "Turner has been great, and now when in his vagaries he chooses to be great no longer, he is like the cunning creature, that having lost his tail, persuaded every animal that had one, that it was a useless appendage. He has robbed the sun of his birthright to cast shadows."

The new exhibit at the de Young, "J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free," is a dramatic overview of Turner's last 15 years, when light was, indeed, an obsession, but when shadows were equally important in his art, along with themes of death, survival and history. The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 is the exhibit's apotheosis — a swirling mass of fire and brimstone engulfing Parliament. Turner witnessed the devastation himself, sketching away as he stood with thousands of others in a state of disbelief, confusion, and awe. As with all calamitous events, the fire aroused wildly conflicting theories and opinions, with some claiming the conflagration was an act of God or even political divination. The London Times called it "a spectacle of terrible beauty," and that's what Turner produced with his seminal painting, which puts viewers into the scene with other onlookers who see billowing waves of red, orange, yellow, and charcoal.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 is a dreamscape of fact and imagination. In the painting's right expanse, the Westminster Bridge is a caricature of itself — a condensed ivory-hued mass that looks more like the Taj Mahal than a pedestrian overpass under which ships pass through. Shadows? The spectators in the foreground are bathed in shadows, as is the waterway. However, those shadows are waves of boats crammed with people who paid to get a closer look of the burning building. Some scholars see the seeds of Impressionism, and even 20th-century abstraction, in the work's semi-amorphousness. In this schema, Turner is an art-history prophet who has links to Monet, Motherwell, and every modern painter who uses the light of the sky to extraordinary effect.

A direct connection can be made between Turner's The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834 and Peter Alexander's PA & PE, a prominent 1990 painting that anchors the Contemporary Jewish Museum's new exhibit, "Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty." Like Turner, Alexander creates a sky that breathes with explosive colors — except this is Los Angeles on the edge of night, and the sky's light is bolstered by an exaggerated electricity grid that gives L.A. a kind of mesmerizing, extraterrestrial sheen, with every city street, freeway, and downtown building bathed in beautiful greenish-yellow. Alexander is part of the "Light and Space" art movement whose members, since the 1960s, have experimented with materials and perspectives to accentuate elements of light and spacial awareness. PA & PE, which stretches horizontally for more than 15 feet, is the piece that greets visitors to "Night Begins the Day," setting the tone for a profoundly stirring exhibit that connects disparate works of art under the same roof.

The exhibit's most stunning video is French artist Laurent Grasso's Soleil Noir, an 11-minute traipse above isolated cliffs, hills, ranges, and the old stone city of Pompeii. Through drone cameras that glide and stay still, we follow the path of wind and silence, nature and nobody. A dog walks by itself along streets of abandoned buildings, guided by its instincts. Birds fly over cliffs that are too sheer to climb by foot. Clouds interrupt a skyline that will soon be pitch black. The rhythm of Soleil Noir comes from its elliptical pacing and stirring, almost hypnotic soundtrack. No words are spoken, yet the film speaks a language that is visceral and even poetic. "Night Begins the Day" is the first time that Grasso has exhibited on the West Coast, and he will speak about Soleil Noir Thursday, Sept. 3, in one of many museum talks that accompany the exhibit.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum gave itself a loose mandate for "Night Begins the Day," choosing works that touch on three themes it says are connected to science, art, and the 18th-century concept of the sublime: technological ingenuity, new perspectives of time, and new expressions of "awe and fear that have emerged from contemporary irony and cultural critique." "Night Begins the Day" is the first major exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum for Chief Curator Renny Pritikin (brought on in April 2014) and Associate Curator Lily Siegel (October 2013). Lori Starr, who joined the museum as executive director in June 2013, hired Pritikin and Siegel, whose backgrounds in experimental, multidisciplinary art match Starr's. Pritikin, for example, was chief curator at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 1992 to 2004.

"Night Begins the Day" connects the dots among works that are complementary and challenging as art. Images of nuclear explosions that create mushroom clouds of centrifugal force (Michael Light's 100 Suns) are side-by-side with otherworldly photograms of the night sky with mountains (Vanessa Marsh's Falling). Marsh's cosmos is manufactured. Light's found explosions were just underground tests. Both are versions of reality that are wildly distorted. You feel alone in front of them, and it's this isolation — a beautiful isolation that some people would describe as "transcendent" — that's inculcated throughout "Night Begins the Day," starting with Peter Alexander's PA & PE.

The "awe and fear" that is thematically a layer of "Night Begins the Day" is present in the de Young's exhibit of Turner's work. Besides The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, we get Turner's War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet from 1842, which depicts Napoleon under arrest, guarded by a single French soldier in the waters of St. Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena in the last years of his life, but his remains were controversially returned to France in December 1840, when more than a million people came out to witness a parade exalting a figure who was both loved and reviled. Victor Hugo's account of the parade testifies to its grandeur and almost biblical spectacle, including veiled women in furs and cloaks, crying priests, and artillery and infantry charging ahead "as though going into action." Then there was the funeral procession's weather: full of clouds and rain, but miraculously (according to Hugo), sun. The sun that shines on Napoleon in The Exile and the Rock Limpet seems a mournful one, as Turner depicts Napoleon with his head down and arms crossed. There's no cheering here, and no large crowds; Napoleon is practically alone.

Turner could be overtly political with his paintings, as in his 1840 work Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), which depicted the horrors of European treatment of slaves, and this painting is likely a rejoinder to the hero-worshipping that took place in France only a few months earlier. Slave Ship is not in "J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free," but some 65 other works are featured at the de Young, which show that Turner was defiant until the end of his life — defiant of the downturn in his health, which made it more difficult to paint; defiant of critics who said he was a pale imitation of his former self; and defiant of convention, which wanted clearly definable art instead of work that played with reality and both did and didn't glorify it.


About The Author

Jonathan Curiel


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