Shotgun Reviews

Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty at the Contemporary Jewish Musuem

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Mary Coyne reviews Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. 

Laurent Grasso. Soleil Noir, 2014; 16mm film, looped; 11:40. Courtesy of the Artist, Galerie Perrotin, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Laurent Grasso. Soleil Noir, 2014; 16mm film, looped; 11:40. Courtesy of the Artist, Galerie Perrotin, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Night Begins the Day is a meditative, beautifully installed exhibition constructed around contemporary interpretations of the passage of time and the articulations of something larger or more powerful than we are able to comprehend through the sublime. Curator Renny Pritikin and Associate Curator Lily Siegel root the exhibition within a Jewish tradition of beginning the new day at sunset, rather than sunrise, allowing an askance look on themes with which artists have been working for centuries. Revisiting the often theoretically dense or traditionally romanticized concepts of the sublime, the twenty-seven contemporary artists whose work composes the exhibition employ new media, popular culture, and a critically shaped approach to an image’s ability to suggest anything beyond its own limitations.

The exhibition opens with a nod toward an image of the postmodern sublime, Peter Alexander’s nighttime landscape painting of the Los Angeles basin from the vantage point of the Griffith Observatory. Alexander is part of the first generation of Light and Space artists to come of age in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and the work sets the stage with a familiar starting point for the visual language and themes developed in the rest of the exhibition.

Also relying on a well-known visual trope of the sublime, Laurent Grasso takes on the rupturing volcano as a portal to the power of nature in his film Soleil Noir (2014). The work is installed as a full-wall projection, and the camera hovers over the mouth of an active volcano breathing smoke. The image at once activates terror and calm. No destruction occurs; a scene of terror becomes one of silent waiting. The now-green hillsides and ruins of Pompeii are reminders that we’ve been waiting for thousands of years. Christopher Woodcock shares a similar approach of adapting contemporary applications of the camera to majestic landscape painting in his The Great Western Divide series (2011). Taking as his subject the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, Woodcock uses a long exposure to photograph the landscape lit by a full moon, creating an otherworldly black-and-white image. The hours needed to create these images are at once antithetical to the medium of immediate photography, but represent nothing more than a moment in the archeological time of the mountain range.

Moving beyond the historically utilized icons of the power of nature, a number of the artists in the exhibition take on the unfathomable cosmos as their entry into engagement with the sublime. Robert Kooima, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering, is one of the few to take on the technological sublime, in a video-game-type participatory work in which the user flies through the galaxy by moving a joystick. This playful nod to past decades of digital programming initiates a new chapter of image exploration into a larger, unfathomable realm. Night Begins the Day shows that there is still a lot of space and time in which to think through unfathomable experience, and new forms by which we can approach its limits.

Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty is on view through September 20, 2015 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Mary Coyne is a curator and writer from Los Angeles and New York. She is currently based in Minneapolis, where she is a research fellow at the Walker Art Center.