Bright explorations: David Summers’ uplifting tribute to light at Les Yeux du Monde

A close look at David Summers’ “Mondrian’s Recycling” reveals the whimsical way the painting pays homage to the geometric abstract style of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.
Courtesy of the artist A close look at David Summers’ “Mondrian’s Recycling” reveals the whimsical way the painting pays homage to the geometric abstract style of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Courtesy of the artist

A Renaissance man as well as a Renaissance scholar, David Summers uses his vast knowledge to explore light physically and from a philosophical standpoint. “David Summers: Nothing but Light” at Les Yeux du Monde examines the artist’s continued preoccupation with the visual topic that has been at the center of his artistic output for decades.

“There’s one thing I should tell you about the paintings,” says Summers, pausing for effect. “You’re supposed to like them.” He chuckles. “They’re supposed to be likable.”

Summers is the Emeritus William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art Theory and Italian Renaissance Art at UVA. He is also an author whose works include Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, Michelangelo and the Language of Art, and The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics.

“David Summers is that rare art historian who can also paint,” says Les Yeux du Monde Director Lyn Warren. “He draws on his broad knowledge to create glorious paintings that hide unexpected treasures.”

Summers is also known to augment his work with historical, mythological, or other erudite references. His “Net of Indra” series takes its name from an ancient Buddhist allegory that deals with the concept of interconnectedness or emptiness (of a separate self/ego). The net stretches out infinitely above the dwelling of the god Indra. Within each mesh rhombus of the net, a single jewel glitters. All the other jewels are reflected in this one jewel and are also reflecting all the other jewels, ultimately resulting in an infinite ricocheting of reflections within the net. Summers may be making a statement about the interconnection of all things, but it’s the behavior of light that’s particularly relevant to his work. Capturing, with his brush, light glinting off reflective surfaces appears to be one of the artist’s greatest challenges and joys.

Indra’s net figures prominently in the show with four paintings referencing it. “Play of Light in the Net of Indra (Two Blue Pitchers)” is a work of hue, light, and texture. “Fragment of the Net of Indra (Night)” is equally arresting, and “Still Life with Sunrise” thrums with shimmering energy. The outer edges of the painting, where pink underpainting is visible peeking out from beneath the background, tells us a bit about Summers’ process, while creating a quietly beautiful effect. 

“Play of Light in the Net of Indra (Two Blue Pitchers)” Image courtesy of the artist

“Mondrian’s Recycling” pays homage to the Dutch modernist with subtlety and humor. Summers creates an alluring image of cool verdancy in his arrangement of glass objects, mostly blue, green and clear, placed on a table top and its lower shelf. This setup is in front of a window through which a hedge of trees is visible. Thanks to the title, we detect how the outlines of the window, wall, and table cleverly produce a version of Mondrian’s iconic grid formation. It’s a light touch that could have gone unnoticed. Another droll art reference—a deadpan jab at Jeff Koons’ vacuous, overly merchandised output—is dropped into “Still Life with Million-Dollar Balloon Dog.”

“Big Still Life with Mirrors, Homage to van Eyck (For D.W.)” has an interesting backstory. A friend of Summers’, D.W. presented him with a convex mirror similar to the one prominently featured in Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait.”

Van Eyck has special significance to Summers as a prominent member of the early northern Renaissance school of painting whose developments in the use of oil paint were hugely influential. In addition to falling within his purview of study, Summers relies on the medium van Eyck perfected to create his own transparent glazes. These are fundamental to his oeuvre as they enable Summers to render glass and produce reflections.

In Summers’ painting, the convex van Eyck mirror is surrounded by other mirrors, including, amusingly, a rearview mirror that sits insouciantly at the bottom of the pile. There are also clear glass balls (Japanese fishing net floats), tin cans, and a vase. As in the original van Eyck, you can just make out the artist’s reflection in the convex mirror.

“Commodity Ghosts Dancing in the Sun” references our disposable culture with a row of plastic seltzer bottles—the ghosts of commodity—set against a patterned background. Summers reveals the beauty and humor in these throw-away items, and they, in turn, provide a nice edginess that contrasts with the refined polish of Summers’ execution. To balance Summers’ paintings of objects, interior and garden scenes and a series of enchanting vignettes from the Chesapeake Bay that evoke the best days of high summer are also included in the show.

“Do you remember the Shmoo from ‘Li’l Abner’?,” asks Summers. “It was a lovable little creature, that was any flavor you liked when you ate it. These paintings are like that. The subject matter is really light, I want it to be light. But the arbitrariness of the things is supposed to be slightly humorous—slightly humorous in the way somebody you like is.”

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