Arts & Entertainment

Late F.C. Resident’s Art Evokes Dream-Like Feelings

by Mark Dreisonstok

Dream of the Alchemist. (Photo Courtesy Salve Regina Gallery)

Waking up from a dream, one usually remembers bits that seem at first unrelated, but which follow a theme.  The art exhibition “Nocturne Eternal,” currently on display at the Salve Regina Gallery at the Catholic University of America, follows this pattern. John Figura (lifetime resident of the Annandale/Falls Church area and late professor of painting at Catholic University) vividly captured the moments of awakening, clearly shown in this exhibition of his nocturnally-themed oil paintings.

The Figura style is partially indebted to Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Albert Pinkham Ryder, with frequent touches of the surreal. Such influences show in many of his images, which are often untitled and feature a single tree standing alone against a moonlit night sky with clouds and sometimes lightning. These paintings express traditional Romantic themes such as longing, solitude, and the mystery of the self.  On the other hand, his paintings contain modern elements as well: an airplane, a woman in a contemporary dress standing alone, and a car with lights on in the middle of a desolate landscape, all of which bring Figura’s art into contemporary life experience. 

As such, this exhibition is an extended walk through the nighttime imagination, as we see with the painting “Allegory;” here we view a woman wearing an hour-glass shape dress, walking on a path towards us and away from a burning house. Surrounding the path are trees on both sides and a blue sky, containing yellow clouds and a bright crescent moon.  Is the allegory about love, that the woman is walking away from a once-important love commitment, represented by the house being destroyed by flames?

 “Nocturne with Two Skeletons (for Haruki Murakami)” is of a very different nocturnal mood, depicting two skeletal figures using a ladder to climb out of a grave, all under a luminous moon.   Though these figures should be dead and unmoving, they are not only climbing, but also seemingly engaged in lively discussion.  This spooky night painting with skeletons, on the one hand, is appropriate for our Halloween season.  However, the painting is actually a literary reference to a scene in Haruki Murakami’s novel, Dance, Dance, Dance   — a work of fiction which greatly impressed the painter. 

In another scene, we see a painting with a plane descending before the clouds which themselves may contain plane-like shapes. The moon in the middle of the painting both illuminates the painting, while also providing an anchoring point of focus. The viewer is invited to imagine the background story, for the painting, like many in the exhibition, is untitled.

 Two of the paintings involve alchemy, at least of a spiritual sort. “Dream of the Alchemist” shows a ladder, perhaps symbolizing ascent to higher spiritual truths. At the same time, it is a very common-looking ladder, suggesting that the sublime might be achieved through everyday experience. The other painting of a mystical bent is “Quincux” (perhaps “Quincunx” is meant), which shows five flashes of light, perhaps fireflies or stars. Mysteriously, a sixth light, cast by fire, may symbolize the creation of something new via alchemical tradition. 

As we continue our nocturnal journey through the exhibition (and extend the Halloween theme), “Ghosts” shows a burning house seen from the grass, depicting an act of revenge with a boat prepared for the getaway of the perpetrator.  Yet floating stars give this painting an oddly peaceful feel.  Trees are lit by the reflection of the moon in the water.  Perhaps the moon represents illusion, since the moon seems to illuminate but is merely a reflection of the sun. When the water takes on the reflection of the moon and the trees take on their illumination from the moonlit sheen on the water, the painter builds illusory reflection upon reflection upon reflection. Romantic nocturnes transform into modern questions on the reliability of the truth we see here and elsewhere in the many moonlit paintings of the exhibition.

The “Nocturne Eternal” art exhibition causes us to reflect on the many moods of night while at the same time making eternal the memory of talented local painter John Figura.  This excellent and thought-provoking exhibition runs through December 17, 2021.