Night Sky #16 1979
There are twenty-two canvases in the Night Skies series, one of the first that Gathie Falk created following her return to painting in 1977 after an eleven-year hiatus. In Night Sky #16 Falk’s facility with the subject is clear, as subtle, misty colour, light in some areas, dark and somewhat acrid in others, mottles the midnight blue field of colour, creating depth, atmosphere, and mystery with a remarkable economy of visual articulation. While other canvases in the series veer into more complex depictions of what the night sky contains, this work possesses a handful of five-pointed stars and just enough variation in colour and form to render the subject identifiable and spark the viewer’s imagination. Though the subject is, in theory, simple in appearance—a dark ground speckled with points of light—Falk’s approach to the composition was far from facile.
As art critic Robin Laurence describes, each of the images in the series is built on top of an extremely complex ground of underpaint composed of cross marks in yellow ochre, raw umber, ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, green, alizarin crimson, and raw sienna. This is overlaid with a combination of thinned ultramarine blue and umber that Falk slapped onto the canvas so as to avoid creating a brush trail on her surface. The effect has its roots in all-over abstraction, although many of the Night Skies possess elements of figuration—some subtly so in the points of twinkling stars, and others more obviously so—with clouds and other atmospheric effects interrupting the darkness.
Falk has described the Night Skies—and the series that followed it, Pieces of Water, 1981–82—as “personal realism, because they represent [her] personal and emotional response to [her] environment.” Of course, this statement, made in connection with such a specific moment in her practice, would not be out of place as a description of most of Falk’s work. In her intimate analysis of Falk’s oeuvre, “To Be a Pilgrim,” Laurence describes how a poodle, given to the artist by her husband while their short marriage was in full decline, forced Falk to engage with the world beyond her house and garden. One night, while out for a walk with the dog, she looked up at the sky, which had always fascinated her, and heard the words, “Paint the sky! Paint the night sky!”
In a 1984 interview with Nicholas Tuele, then curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Falk stated, “It always seems to me that I can never get everything said in one painting. If I do one painting it always leads to other ways of doing a similar kind of thing, and so I just keep on working until either there is a show, which stops me and then another show coming up after that which has to be different…”
Falk would revisit the subject of the night sky in two subsequent series, Heavenly Bodies, 1999–2005, and Heavenly Bodies Again, 2015–16. While the later works tend to include more conspicuous celestial elements, they are even less connected to the appearance of reality than the first series on the topic.