The night after Superstorm Sandy subsided I was walking out in the woods pursuing an orange light where no orange light should be. The rest of the night was an unusual darkness owed to the lack of power in the area but a steaming orange specter blistered behind silhouette trees. I was on the phone with the police trying to describe what I was seeing while I stumbled through the muck and debris. While I realized the options for what it was were few, a coincidence was leading me to implausible nameless conclusions.
I had just finished a painting that depicted ethereal lights emanating from a nocturnal forest. I painted this piece in the studio but had been thinking about the exact location where there was now this fiery glow as the setting. Last summer I had been working with a model in the same darkened woods on a slope along the banks of the Neshaminy Creek, posing her by torchlight. I became enamored with the way the whole forest responded to that light, tugging and pulling at shadows and revealing the topography in new ways.
I began to imagine scenes of bacchanalia with figures running wildly through the midnight woods torches in hand. Livy, the Roman historian described these celebrants of the god Baccus thus: “There was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. […] To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the sum total of their religion. The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies; the matrons, dressed as Bacchae, their hair disheveled, rushed down to the Tiber River with burning torches, plunged them into the water, and drew them out again, the flame undiminished because they were made of sulfur mixed with lime.” This dissolution of social constructs and surrender to sensual desire is, of course, both appealing and disturbing. Such a scene is well trodden ground in art, from Vallotton’s painting Twilight to Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev, mixing the seductive with the ominous.
I constructed my painting of bachhanal in the way it occurred to me, applying broad strokes to the ghostly terrain activated by the insurgence of light from a smoldering fire and curious spark in the treetops. Though it was set up as a backdrop for the revelers to come charging through the composition, I couldn’t bring myself to paint them in. The illuminated forest was far more interesting without anyone intruding, dangling on the verge of abstraction. It suggested the bacchanalians were about to arrive, had just departed, or were perhaps invisible. It had the suspense of Goldilocks entering the empty house to find the bears’ porridge still warm.
On that post-hurricane night I hiked to the Bacchanal spot down along the creek and saw that the glow was just across the water by my neighbors house. Thankfully it was not the house on fire, but a downed power line on the adjacent road that had gone berserk when the current was restored. The zap of electricity and phosphorous odor permeated the air. Though the source was identified, my mind still held out reservations for the supernatural. I stayed on the line with the 911 operator until a fire truck appeared. It meandered through the dark, describing the location of the invisible road it traversed. The constellation of lights decorating the vehicle, along with the string of police cars that attended behind, began to look like the image I’d conceived of the Bacchanalians cavorting towards a bonfire.
There they were with their torches wildly encircling their growling fiery altar. It gave me a chill—I felt light Young Goodman Brown. The fire fighters then cut the power and all went dark with a satisfying pop that sent unseen animals scurrying around me with alarm.
The Mephistopheles character that appears in Goethe’s Faust is an admitted agent of chaos who describes himself as “a part of that part that in the beginning was the Whole. A part of the Darkness, Darkness that gave birth to Light. The proud Light that now competes with Mother Night, concerning her more ancient rank and place.” After the storm many of us have shared a new intimacy with the darkness and can see the struggle for light that Mephistopheles suggests in the chaos that has followed. Light is a terrifically rare treat in the universe. Most of space is barely touched by distant starlight, and yet we bask in relatively copious rays from our sun, indeed we wouldn’t exist without it. And yet we still fear the dark that will so readily encroach where light is obscured. All possibility wells up in the shadows, so light helps us organize our lives. It is a curious and beautiful dance between the shadows and light, even in the course of a devastating storm.