The Dark Light of Domenic Cretara

by Frederick Turner

When in complete darkness the eye can see no light, the brain still creates its own light, an “Eigengrau” that can be willed into shapes in the retinal field. “Dark light” is the English name of this phenomenon, and it can serve as a metaphor for what some artists have come to practice in their paintings. It is an inner light that serves as a measure of the outer light that falls upon our eyes.

The ear, likewise, hums to itself, vibrating its tiny inner hairs, hearing not the external sound directly, but the much more perfectly accurate interference between the external sound and the internal one. More generally, all contemporary scientific studies of perception indicate that the brain does not passively receive sensation, but actively reaches out after a perceptual world, using its own subtle measuring-sticks, of which dark light is one. More generally still, perhaps, we might infer that the mind, with its own appetites and hopes, seeks confirmations of its views in the world, and that knowledge is the confirmation—or much more powerfully, painfully and significantly, the denial—of its grasp. Does the soul of an artist, too, perceive the world in its own soul language? Domenic Cretara is perhaps such an artist.

Woman and Baby, 2004, Courtesy of the artist

Cretara is sometimes considered a modern Caravaggista, that is, a follower of the great Renaissance artist Caravaggio (1571–1610) in the technique of chiaroscuro, or extreme contrasts of light and shadow (with high detail in the light and low detail in the shade). Caravaggio founded the Tenebrism movement, featuring such masters as Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622), Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652) and the great Rembrandt (1606–69). The technique was not just a novel and unprecedented invention in visual representation (like true perspective, it is found in no other cultural tradition other than Europe’s). It was also a kind of deep psychological and spiritual probe.

It is not only that the fall of light across a face or body can reveal detail unseen in a flat, evenly lit view, or even that the artist can arrange the light and shadows to brilliantly illuminate or mysteriously obscure what he chooses. It is that the attention to the medium of perception on the part of the artist—and thus of the viewer—alerts us to the relativity of objects and actions. It makes their appearance dependent upon the point of view that is taken, and thus forces us to make the moral choice of how to see what is happening in the drama of the subject.

Tenebrism was thus the perfect medium for the new Renaissance obsession with the individual soul, and the competing Reformation and Counter-Reformation systems for the examination of one’s conscience. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (1548), which might be said to be a handbook for putting Saint Augustine’s Confessions to practical use on oneself, comes visually alive in the works of the Caravaggisti. In literature, Montaigne’s Essais (1580) is a masterpiece of self-examination, heavily influencing Shakespeare and giving him the materials for such great soliloquies as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech or Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” René Descartes employs the technique to the uses of philosophical epistemology in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy. He sets the self on the bare stage of the new self-aware mental theater, lights it with the severe horizontal light of logical reason and reads off what that light reveals. And Blaise Pascal, Rembrandt’s contemporary, places the whole tradition in the context of moral salvation with Pensées (still incomplete at his death in 1662), paving the way for the eventual emergence of existentialism with Søren Kierkegaard.

Cretara is firmly in this tradition. When we consider, for instance, his Dolls and Skeleton paintings (oil on canvas, #1 and #2, 2012), the chiaroscuro makes us seek clues to understand its dark allegory and resolve its possibly horrific meaning. We must choose to treat the work as one of despair, pathos, wisdom or atrocity. His astonishingly powerful series on the O.J. Simpson trial is full of details that can barely be made out because of the confusing highlights and shadows. But in combination, they present us with questions about justice, choice, the public and the private, judgment, salvation and damnation. When he gives O.J. the iconic body of Cretara himself (A Perfect Alibi, oil on canvas, 1977), this substitution only makes explicit a set of questions inherent throughout. This thing of darkness, as Prospero says in The Tempest, I acknowledge mine: Cretara recognizes in the murderer his own potential motives.

“In light of ” becomes more than just an idiom. The discrepancy of the various parts of the painting with the dark light default expectation arouses an automatic response of attention, questioning and an anxiety that, if satisfied, results in insight and pleasure. We must find out what is going on and reach out to grasp it, and thus in some small way changing ourselves, conforming to a certain pattern of ethical judgments in order to see it at all, and risking the humiliating deconfirmation of our assumptions.

When defense attorneys Robert Shapiro and Alan Dershowitz wrestle with a bloodstained bird (Lawyer on the Day of Atonement, oil on canvas, 1996; Lawyer Atoning for His Sins, oil on canvas, 1999), are they murdering the spirit of justice, fighting an angel or being damned by it? With their nakedness, are the dolls in Cretara’s doll paintings (2011–12) a comment on the pathos and vulnerability of the human body, a dark denunciation of pederasty, a feminist riddle, an evocation of the power of icons such as the Christ child, a questioning of the art that makes artificial human beings, or a meditation on the difference between the living and the inorganic? We must compare the implied dark light of the artist with the contrasts in the painting that delineate the characters represented and with our own dark light point of view.

So Cretara, who has Italian roots, is rediscovering what is more than a powerful technique—rather, a tool of the soul. His work is theatrical in the best sense of the word (of psychological discovery), even operatic. It is always strongly lit, even spotlighted. His interest in masks and scenes and props, his tableaux of frozen action, are reminiscent of the renaissance Italian theatrical tradition that gave us the commedia dell’arte and operatic verismo. And like Rembrandt, Cretara turns the dark light upon his own face in a disturbing succession of self-portraits, including the image of himself as a determined but uncomprehending little boy in cowboy boots with a cap gun in the hand that will one day hold a brush.

Cretara is a leading exponent of an important new movement in American art: Visionary Realism. Its hallmarks are meticulous craft, especially in drawing, emulating the old masters; a decisive concentration on the real present of our contemporary visual experience, especially of each other as human beings; a recognition of the deep strangeness, the embodied spirituality of our lives; an unabashed realism that includes not just the phenomena but their meaning; and a search for beauty that is at the same time a critique of its conventions. What Cretara brings to this movement is his own dark light, enabling an extraordinary compassion and insight into the human face and body, and a startling freshness of vision that makes ordinary things look as deeply odd as they really are.

The Actor, 2007, Courtesy of the artist

Cretara is in the company of other contemporary artists that have embraced, in the teeth of postmodern lightweight skepticism, a new seriousness and moral depth, a narrative drive to psychological insight and an inclination toward the big questions—all things that abstraction cannot do. Odd Nerdrum, Wes Christensen, Ron Cheek, John Cobb and Steven Assael are taking on some of the same issues in painting, as are Arvo Pärt, Stefania de Kenessey and Henryk Gorecki in music, and Frederick Feirstein and Dana Gioia (who is also fascinated by dolls) in poetry. And there are several others, still only a small minority within the contemporary arts.

Instead of exploiting victimhood, they celebrate the tragedy of human life. Instead of slyly undermining the artistic means that are given by nature and tradition to artists, as so many postmodernists have done—biting the hand that feeds them, so to speak—they honor the grand mimetic or tonal or narrative or metrical tradition by emulating and surpassing it. Instead of evading moral responsibility for their work by ironic obfuscation, they commit themselves to its subject and spirit, make themselves vulnerable to the spirit of their models, put themselves at the mercy of their audience. Instead of denying their own virtuosity, they frankly vaunt their miraculous powers of observation and imitation. Instead of cutely giving curators or performers headaches by using perishable, formless or noxious materials and instruments—thus implicitly sneering at the artist’s gift to posterity—they work in enduring materials and classical forms.

What is it that Cretara gives us in exchange for the witty insider puzzles of the avant-garde? It is a grand narrative—one rooted in Catholic Christianity but entirely consistent with Buddhist and Hindu ideas of enlightenment, karma, desire and suffering, Greco-Roman polytheist conceptions of tragedy and transcendence, and especially the divine-human struggle of the Jewish Bible. Cretara drags us unwillingly back to the inescapable reality of sin—in shocking works like Rape (1982–83), The Assault (1984), The Murder (1986), The Attack (1985: note the bewildering and sinister chiaroscuro of its central figure), Confession (1986), Cain and Abel (1986), Rape of the Sabine Women (1987), Vanishing Point (1998, recalling Goya’s images of Napoleonic atrocities) and, of course, the Simpson trial series (1996–2002).

Sin is almost always depicted by shadows, recalling the theological doctrine of Aquinas, that evil is the absence of good (and thus of Being), as darkness is the absence of light (not the presence of light’s impossible opposite). In Susanna (oil on canvas, 1995), the elder who stoops over her, voyeur or rapist, has stretched out over her a groping hand. But the hand’s shadow has, by a trick of the light, morphed into a horrible three-fingered saurian claw resting upon her inner thigh. In The Shade (oil on canvas, 1995), the male abuser stands ashamed beside the bruised girl who sits exhausted behind him. But his shadow still falls on her, in token of the continuing psychological damage of his act. Characteristically, Cretara does not exempt himself from his severe examen de conscience. In The Quarrel (oil on canvas, 1995), he stands in a position of entreaty and persuasion before his obdurate wife. But the massiveness of his strong standing body contains a hint of suppressed threat, and his shadow falls across her. His sinners have the nightmarish wounded guilt in their bodily posture and averted gaze that we see in Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Othello and Macbeth. They know that, from this moment of accomplishment and power, they will never be without the monstrous burden of shame and terror at what they cannot help seeing in themselves.

The Quarrel, 1995, Courtesy of the artistUnless, of course, they are redeemed. An angel of sorts—sometimes with a strange outstretched arms gesture—occasionally intervenes to witness and to save, if not the soul of the criminal and the body of the victim, at least the victim’s soul. And the sinner can be redeemed, as in The Conversion of Paul (oil on canvas, 1994) and Conversion (oil on canvas, 1986–96). In Confession (oil on canvas, 1986), the priest denies the sinner, but the outstretched arm of the woman with whom he sinned, despite her lascivious bra and garter-belt, has angelically reached out her arm to him in the gesture of forgiveness, a Gretchen to his Faust. In The Seer (oil on canvas, 1995), The Miracle (oil on canvas, 1979) and The Raising of Lazarus (oil on canvas, 1983), divine revelation bursts into an often uncomprehending world, but it is there to be seen if we, unlike some of those in the painting, are prepared to see it in its proper light.

But all is not darkness and transgression in Cretara’s work. In works such as Deposition (1994), he celebrates human compassion, mourning and love; in the polyptych Aspects of Love II (1995), he shows us multiple images of beloved and desired women celebrating their own free nature; in Caretaker (1999), he presents a sick young man (drugs? AIDS?) who is being nursed by his exhausted girl. Most positive—and well-lit—of all are his scenes of family, which is for Cretara the core value. His Hera (1989) is a gorgeous celebration of wifehood and motherhood (containing the only full smile I have seen in his work). Most moving of all, perhaps, is the recurring scene—possibly from an old photograph—of himself as a child (wearing the cowboy boots) with his father.

The family groups, with himself sketching in the center of a scene bursting with individual lives, remind us of something central to our lives yet, astonishingly, almost never represented in contemporary art. His family scenes often resurrect the dead. Beautiful ghosts and old portraits and commedia dell’arte figures from Cretara’s family are comfortably present among the living. An image of a little girl reaching over her dad’s knee to see his sketch-pad recurs in several works. We cannot mistake the affection and nostalgia in the paintings of the old family house and neighborhood in Italian New York—again often haunted by familiar ghosts. His Autobiography (2001) is a masterpiece in this mode, an epic history that contains, beside the family, a nun, a loose woman, a harlequin, a ghost (from Lucia di Lammermoor?), a respectable nineteenth-century beauty, a convict and Dante Alighieri. And here the light is falling from many directions—from the left, the right, behind, in front—each face lit according to its own context, yet somehow forming a cross-temporal group, united into a family.

Cretara’s recent exhibition (February 16–April 14, 2013) in Santa Clara, California, at the Triton Museum of Art, went almost completely without critical notice, and this essay is in part an attempt to repair the omission. It is a sign of the continuing collapse of standards in the fashionable art world and the triumph of an eviscerated form of postmodern art theory that work so important should be ignored. But for those who have eyes to see, Cretara gives us art worth seeing.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 3