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  • Aarik Danielsen

Because the Night: Step into the Painted Nights

Let me convince you of something just once: Pick three nights, any three coming nights, and survey the sky.

Adam from the Bay Area still sings his sermon: If you've never stared off into the distance, then your life is a shame. But Adam from the Bay Area never spells out a cardinal direction. Why not true and angled north? Why not a thousand-yard stare heavenward to resist the shame?

Blinking through fewer manmade beams, I feel an integrity descend and diffuse. I become a rare, living candle, grateful to be surrounded.

Start in the center of your hometown, barroom windows and statuesque lamps burning before the stars. Witness them sounding small notes in an audition for their ancestors’ orchestra.

On night two, walk a bit farther out to make your circle, somewhere the electric body barely registers. My modest Missouri neighborhood, intermittent with its street lights, satisfies me, doing little to quell the heavenly greatness. Here, the ancients own any chance to shine.

Blinking through fewer manmade beams, I feel an integrity descend and diffuse. I become a rare, living candle, grateful to be surrounded.

As the third and last night settles, drive as far as you need to drive. Go to a place beneath the suspended sable blanket, each stellar dot sewn through by hand. Lift your eyes till every foolish thing falls out of focus and new points of convergence clarify themselves.

Let me convince you of something just twice: Between and beyond these three sky-gazing nights, click on thumbnail sketches, take up your art books, cross the threshold of a museum and stare off into whatever distance you find. Search these 2-D scriptures for night skies painted in colors described, but never defined.

Some of my favorite canopies belong to British painter John Atkinson Grimshaw. Grimshaw’s moon travels England’s streets like some itinerant night prophet. And, yes, this light reveals sin and weariness: each crack along cobbled roads, everywhere ivy overtakes plans men once laid best in brick.

But Grimshaw’s moon sets everything and everyone aglow; like a main character, it colors all, even when unseen. Metallic green, endless gold and burnished silver skies bid us enter, call us to lose ourselves inside the envelope, night expressing itself through this tinge in the once and the only.

Van Gogh forever comes along, clutching his heavenly claim. His skies sing ageless soul music; their grand sweep and storm accommodate pocked lights, assuring us we all deserve the stars. Where pitch-black night absorbs everyday colors, van Gogh’s bluesy firmament shivers ever so, forming a shelter from our every lingering sorrow, to hang over our every small disgrace.

My two favorite modern artists live as gentler siblings to Prometheus, stealing skies from the gods only to offer them back as prayers.

To become acquainted with the night, in the manner of Saville and McLaughlin, Grimshaw or van Gogh, is to fear the collapsing dusk less and less.

British painter Ben McLaughlin, born in the last, yielding watch of the ‘60s, treats the night sky as a manifest secret understood, undressed with each brushstroke and subsequent gaze. McLaughlin’s skies hang over cloistered campsites and lonely airport runways, gray the interiors of outmoded cars and assign gas stations a lighthouse beacon’s status.

Anywhere loneliness encroaches—in suburban wilds and storied forests, where a man faces his estranged brother or even stranger mirror image—McLaughlin’s night sky becomes a series of sacred verbs: beckons, vibrates, dampens, testifies, consoles.

How much more, or more distinctly, Lynn Saville’s gifts echo, as the photographer makes light-and-dark paintings from real American nights.

Series like Dark City, Night Shift and Acquainted with the Night tether Saville to her New York City and lend her perspective to places like Venice, California, Columbus, Ohio, the poet-farmer’s Vermont.

Saville’s viewfinder expresses affection for the windows of vacant storefronts and well-worn factories; makes canyons of street corners; captures the haloes around blank billboards, beneath bridges as the rain trills down. Any place and every place is most itself at night, Saville’s images suggest: breathing easy, keeping another day’s stories, humming songs stuck just overhead.

Whether in a thousand shadow-soaked colors or sensual black-and-white, Saville not only loves the light, but makes the darkness visible. This too is grace.

To become acquainted with the night, in the manner of Saville and McLaughlin, Grimshaw or van Gogh, is to fear the collapsing dusk less and less. Thanks to their work, we never have to be without the night sky.

Once their art lives behind your eyes, fold in the poets. Read of Borges’ nights, dark blue and top-heavy; read Ted Kooser and Tomas Tranströmer, see how they somehow locate the same stars from Nebraska’s plains and tucked inside Swedish towns, then paint the sky with pens, not brushes.

Despite what we internalize so early, paintings (and poems) are not to be solved, but stepped into. Life imitates art; art flirts back. If we see the spark and play enough Norah Jones, cut with some Bill Evans and Dexter Gordon—the slowest, sexiest jams—perhaps they’ll hold hands, sneak a kiss, become inseparable.

Memorizing the colors of a Grimshaw sky or measuring the glow around one of Saville’s beloved doorways, we take the image on its terms, then take those terms to the night. We come to the painting before we observe ourselves within the frame.

Standing beneath the painted sky, a witness and a friend, we see art everywhere, in every night.


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