Last month’s Greenpoint Gallery Night revealed a trend among contemporary artists: they’re reveling in ways to make the sky look weird. (Isn’t all contemporary art about weird these days?) Seriously, there were no kitschy sunsets or pretty blue skies or brooding storms to be found. No, what feels right these days are skies that look charmingly chthonic, oleaginous and obstreperous, weirdly wonderful. Only such strange phrases do them justice.
Broadly speaking, in art history, the sky is often a blank background and a placeholder, allowing other elements of the landscape to take center stage. If an artist does take a creative interest in how the sky is rendered, it’s usually in the name of the optimism of a clear, sunny day, the sublimity of a sunset, the thrill of a storm, or the twinkles of the stars. Can you think of an exception to prove the rule?
What kept showing up in Greenpoint suggests that romanticism’s sublime sensibility doesn’t feel original anymore; it’s had a century to become the aesthetic of postcards. The zeitgeist has changed, and a rougher stranger sky now fits the bill. Nothing too sentimental or twee will do. We like skies that are punked up and funked up — but also cool, like us. The skies were sickeningly gorgeous at several art spaces in Greenpoint.
For example, Lauren Silberman’s photo of a Ferris Wheel “Rust – Wonder Wheel” (2001) has flourishes of deep navy strewn across the light blue sky. It was part of the #throwbackthursday / #flashbackfriday show at Calico. With half of the ferris wheel almost entirely obscured, it’s a delightfully skewed shot. The photo plays the rigid geometric lines of the wheel off the curvy nebulae of navy color bleeds in the sky. The juxtaposition makes for a wicked surface pattern. Is the ferris wheel operating in a storm, or it all a Photoshopped lie that you’re overthinking instead of just taking in the fiction? The work hits upon a sensibility that German Romanticism and the typical modes of depicting the sky can’t.
At the Yes Gallery, the sky went chthonic in miniature paintings by Jack Jerz. Included in the Close Quarters summer show, the works were still on view for the September late night. In each of Jerz’s works, the sky has mixes of different bright colors with blotches that evoke clouds of weird, glowing gas. An impression of the underworld is reinforced by the castle-like architecture and the strange colored light that illuminates the structures.
Like Hieronymus Bosch, Jerz gets how much strange colored gas can evoke the inferno and make the sky something that pulls viewers in. But if you compare Jerz’s sky in a work like “Favela of Pisces” (2013) to Bosch’s “Paradise and Hell” (1510) at the Prado, it’s apparent how Jerz’s casual, rough brushwork and bright, strident color get the image to a different place than Bosch’s peculiar naturalism. The sky is messier and brighter, and it doesn’t fade into the background. You can’t decide if it’s happy, with all those bright colors, or scary, with its rough lines and brooding clouds. It wants all its contradictions to be noticed.
At Fowler Project Space, another sky, this one by Yuka Oda, also played with the juxtaposition between something rough and something bright. Her work “Storm” (2013), which was part of the All Together Now show, features clumps of white butterflies fluttering through dark gray clouds that seem to be on the verge of thundering or gusting and killing the butterflies. The butterflies seem all the more delicate, and all the more courageous. From what I could tell, the work hit home with a lot of people. Don’t we all have moments when we feel on the brink but also exhilarated?
Going back to the color of the sky, it’s not just light blue during the day, pitch black at night, and some gorgeous pink, lavender, or orange during sunset. One might get that impression from the vast amount of images in these three categories circulating in our visual culture. George Gittins captures a different moment, when the sky is periwinkle at twilight, in “Untitled (shoes 1)” (2013), part of the Splonk show at 106 Green. I’ve seen some twilights when the sky turns the strangest color, and it was so exciting to see this muddy periwinkle-lavender abstract sky hinting at a moment after the chromatic peak of a sunset that doesn’t get enough love.
Your author would never claim to be a photographer, but, walking down Chambers Street recently after a long day at work, the sky looked eerily like it had been ripped from Gittin’s canvas, albeit with tad more pink and a tad less blue, but close enough. The point is that artists are getting us to look up at these strange skies and find beauty where we previously might have said ‘weird, whatever’ and kept checking emails that don’t need immediate responses.
Looking from fall 2013 into the future, there’s so much uncertainty. So much of what lies on the horizon seems bizarre, and it’s hard to make heads or tails of what it means. It would only be fitting for artists to challenge us to look up and smile at unfamiliar, unclear horizons. Learn to find the delight in skies mixed with roughness and brightness; they mirror the mixture of opportunities to seize and dangers to watch in this post-recession decade. You only live once. You’re only young once. So, you’re better off learning to enjoy today’s skies for what they are.
Greenpoint Gallery Night took place Friday, September 13, from 6 to 9 pm at galleries around Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Close Quarters ran from July 26 to August 31 at Yes Gallery (147 India Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn).
#throwbackthursday / #flashbackfriday ran from September 13 to October 4 at Calico (67 West Street, #206, Greenpoint, Brooklyn).
All Together Now ran from September 13 to October 7 at Fowler Project Space (67 West Street, #216, Greenpoint, Brooklyn).
Splonk ran from September 13 to October 13 at 106 Green (106 Green Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn).