Darkness Visible: Paintings by Cy Gavin at the Aspen Art Museum
Artist Cy Gavin’s darkroom experience at the Aspen Art Museum
What: Cy Gavin exhibition
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Through July 11
How much: Free
More info: The museum is operating at a limited capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic. Make reservations for timed entry at aspenartmuseum.org
During a site visit to Aspen in November 2020, as he prepared for his first U.S. solo museum exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum, the artist Cy Gavin made a trip to Glenwood Caverns, the natural marvel and tourist attraction in Glenwood Springs that stretches for subterranean miles.
Gavin, who grew up in cavern-pocked southeastern Pennsylvania, has long been interested in representing the darkness of an unlit cavern in his work. He’d previously drawn art world attention for paintings of nocturnal landscapes, but his idea for this Aspen show was different.
“I finally thought this is an opportunity to make this painting that I’ve been thinking of, like, ‘How do you make a painting in the absence of light?’” Gavin explained this week at the museum.
The result, which opened to the public Tuesday, is a massive painting stretching across a museum wall in a barely-lit gallery in the lower level of the museum, where there is no natural light (and where the gallery was originally constructed to be able to convert into a black box theater).
Gavin and the museum team coated the gallery walls in a light-absorbing paint, creating the experience – when you first walk in – of nearly total darkness. The viewer has to sit for awhile and let their eyes adjust to the extra low lighting before the cavern painting emerges with its subtle hints of light and shape.
This rare and jarringly original gallery experience takes time (Gavin recommends about 10 minutes) and offers an alternative to the perfect illumination viewers expect of museum galleries. The room seems extra quiet, with a pair of benches welcoming viewers to settle and experience it, and necessitates a slow art experience.
Gavin has been fascinated by the effect in human eyes when they switch from light environments to dim ones, going from using cones to rods for vision – it’s called the “Purkinje shift” – and long thought about using it for a painting. Curator Saim Demircan was supportive of making it happen at the Aspen show, Gavin said, and the museum’s curatorial team worked meticulously with the artist to get the subtle lighting just right.
In the first hours that the exhibition was open to the public, with Gavin packed for his flight back east, he and the team were still tweaking it.
“We can’t just blast it with light,” Gavin said. “It’s figuring out a delicate balance.”
The cavern painting is one of six new pieces in the exhibition. The other five are in a traditionally lit gallery adjacent to the one displaying the cavern piece.
The show is made up of work Gavin made at his Upstate New York studio over the past year. He didn’t make them as one cohesive body of work, yet they all reflect in some way on the natural world and elements operating on a much longer timeline than a human lifespan.
“I didn’t expect to show these,” he said.
None of the works in the Aspen show include humans, but as you spend some time with them and you start thinking their subject is human impermanence. Gavin’s subjects include a comet that passes through view of Earthlings every 6,800 years, a glacial erratic rock that was formed before humans existed and was moved to its angle of repose when glaciers covered what we now call New York State.
“It’s a way of thinking about time and different scales of time,” Gavin said. “This wasn’t conceived as a body of work. [But] these things were made relatively in sequence, so there is a genealogy between them.”
Much of it was inspired by the Hudson River Valley, where Gavin moved to a new home and studio shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began last year.
He has been consumed with all of the vexing questions that have arisen during the pandemic urban exodus to rural spaces like Upstate New York (and Western Colorado, of course) and the tension that followed. These paintings emerged as he’s wrestled personally with fundamental questions about land ownership and citizenship.
“It’s the first time I’ve owned land,” Gavin, who had previously rented a Hudson Valley studio since 2017, said. “Which is a very unexpected thing and also dredges up these ideas about citizenship and place, local politics and stewardship of land.”
The pieces in the Aspen show mark the near beginning of this inquiry in Gavin’s work, exploring what something like a dam or a downed tree means to nature and to the society that’s taken root in it.
He’s starting to think about questions of historic preservation – familiar in the Aspen area over the many public battles over recent decades – and who decides what histories are saved.
One of the acrylic paintings depicts a fallen sugar maple, which had demarcated a property line but became a community resource after it came down in a storm. Gavin painted the 150-year-old tree as viewed from its torn roots, with the tree isolated – no grass or background landscape – which accentuates the strange shape and awesome scale of this simple tree.
“I thought it was formally interesting in some kind of way,” Gavin said. “And it made me sad at the time, because the tree looked healthy.”
The fallen tree became a meeting place for neighbors – one who brought a chainsaw, another with a wood-burning stove who was grateful for a gift of wood. It forged new connections and eased some unspoken tension between the newcomer and the neighbors.
“It was an entrée into this creation of community,” Gavin said. “People are very close to one another, but because of a sense of woodland decorum, people don’t bother you even if you’re just an acre away.”
A temporary gallery wall displays a skyscape of the comet NEOWISE, which passed into view in July 2020 after its surprise discovery by astronomers in March. Orbiting once in 6,800 years, it was on spectacular view from Gavin’s home.
There is a weight of more recent history in some of these pieces. A work on a similar scale to the cavern painting – measuring roughly 12 by 28 feet – depicts an old stone dam near Gavin’s home. These stones, as well as many he collected around the property, date back to the Dutch Colonial period, and were likely used for walls on the land built by enslaved people. Those same stones were used, unsuccessfully, to attempt to dam a stream on the land for hydropower.
Gavin, whose earlier works overtly grappled with colonialism, the slave trade and his Bermudan ancestry, found something profound in depicting those stones moved by humans alongside a painting of a glacial erratic stone moved by the forces of nature.
“They’re not done moving,” he said.
But he’s moved beyond embedding any specific message in his paintings.
“Growing as an artist, the rubric that I have for what I think of as a successful thing I’ve made is just getting myself out of the way,” he said, “and being vulnerable and honest about what is coming forth. … I’ve been trying to marry what is subconsciously coming up and shepherding that idea to something that makes more sense in the front of my brain.”
Though the Aspen exhibition marks Gavin’s first solo museum show in the U.S., his nocturnal landscapes have gained notice for shows at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Manhattan and in group shows at Mass MOCA and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Gavin is uninterested in showing older work, he said, so when he began talking to the Aspen museum’s curatorial team about an Aspen show he wanted to show what he’s making now.
Clearly this exceptional show is the beginning of something for Gavin, not the culmination or end point.
“I’m thinking about what is identifiable rather than explicit, in a world where art is often very explicit,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to make a dark painting, probably.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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