Light and dark are the celebrities in most contemporary art. Solstice art or not; the balance of two things create the tension in great works. Even ready-mades or minimalist sculptures (as with the work of Donald Judd) require the conspiracy of cast light and shifting shadows to fully activate their place in space.
For artists then—as for ancient peoples—the solstice is something like a religious moment. The solstice marks where the breaking point of equilibrium resides. Anyone who’s suffered yawn-worthy art history has heard of chiaroscuro or sfumato; has celebrated the hands of heralded ghosts who created the illusion that 2 dimensions could masquerade as 3.
The winter solstice—today—is the promise that things will get brighter again, longer. The sun will occupy our space a bit more. Winter has turned. The ember of light will grow and spread and swallow larger swaths of darkness in nibbles, gobbles and bites.
Light from Darkness
“He can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons.”
The selection from one of John Donne’s sermons shown above displays the metaphorical depth of solstice. Donne’s work, despite being 500 years old, is one of the major foundation supports for both my poetry as well as my visual art. His use, and mastery, of the conceit—or extended metaphor—underlies the layers in all of my work. His attention here to the implications of the solstice on personal reflection are shown in both the internal and external uses of light. The sermon here was delivered for Christmas one year; a moment near the annual winter solstice.
The Two Dogs
Have all of us heard the story of the two dogs by now? Supposedly stolen from a Native American myth, the fable goes that a tribal elder tells his grandson that inside each of us, there is a black dog and a white dog doing battle.
The black dog possesses qualities typically understood as negative, including envy, greed, sorrow, anger, resentment, and arrogance. The white dog possesses qualities understood as positive, including love, joy, kindness, empathy, compassion, humility, and peace.
The grandson asks, “Which dog will win the fight?” And the elder responds, “Whichever one we feed.”
Solstice Art and Duality
In the artwork “Solstice” doubles feature prominently. There are shadows of the same figures, or their match, responding in the same position in other parts of the picture. Think “Frankenstein” or “Fight Club.” Funhouse mirrors; the Joker and Batman.
There are also moments where one set of pairs triumphs and one set despairs. The piece borrows from both the Cain and Abel fables as well as David and Goliath.
The solstice seems especially important this year. Even as new strains of COVID ravage the U.K., and populations buckle and revolt at quarantine suggestions and stay-at-home orders, the steady deployment of 2 approved vaccines is a speck of light growing and lingering longer against the darkness of 2020.
Here’s hoping on turning the corner literally and metaphorically in terms of light and dark today.
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