Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
Gregory Crewdson, 'Untitled (Woman at the Vanity)' 2004
Gregory Crewdson's 2004 "Untitled (Woman at the Vanity)," is on display at William's College. (The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica/Courtesy of Gregory Crewdson and Luhring Augustine)

Two men, many mysteries

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Edward Hopper's most famous paintings whisper stories that we can never quite catch. What are those people up to in that yellow diner so late at night? Why does that usher leaning against the wall in the dim theater light look so lonely? And in Hopper's "Morning in a City," on view in "Drawing on Hopper: Gregory Crewdson/Edward Hopper" at the Williams College Museum of Art, what is that naked lady thinking as she gazes out her window, over the city rooftops at dawn?

Hopper's influence is apparent in 44-year-old photographer Gregory Crewdson's elaborately staged, haunted suburban melodramas, and he's not shy about admitting it. Pairing work by the two men is one of those curatorial ideas that was just waiting to happen. Williams College is a good place to host this, as they're both New York artists who've done major work in Massachusetts -- Hopper in Gloucester and on Cape Cod, Crewdson in North Adams, Pittsfield, and Lee.

Hopper isn't Crewdson's only influence; he's mentioned Alfred Hitchcock, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. And he works in territory that photographers Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman began exploring in the 1970s. But seeing Crewdson's work with Hopper's clarifies what they're both saying and how they say it.

"Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world," Hopper wrote in 1953.

"Everything in the photographs . . . [is] used as tropes to investigate my interior life," Crewdson said in a 1997 interview. "I want to take familiar tropes like the suburban home or aspects of the landscape and project onto them some kind of personal meaning."

Crewdson deploys a legion of models and assistants to create his scenes. His 2005 "Untitled ('Blue Period' from 'Beneath the Roses')" depicts a dark hotel room, with a makeup kit and key on the bed and a woman's clothes tossed on the floor. A doorway frames a naked, deathly pale older woman standing in the bathroom. Blood drips down her leg. As in David Lynch films, "normal" actions are charged with strange portent. It's unclear just what's going down in Crewdson's mysterious scene, but it strikes me as a mysterious allegory on aging -- the clock on the nightstand reads 11:57 p.m., and this apparently postmenopausal woman seems to have hurriedly thrown off her clothes, surprised by her period.

In Hopper's "Morning in a City" (1944), the nude redheaded woman fidgets with a towel as she stands alone, caught in the golden morning light streaming in the tall window of her sparsely furnished apartment. Or maybe it's a hotel. Immediately the resemblances between the two artists are striking -- nude woman in strange room staring oddly. Both artists tap our desire to fill in the blanks to draw us in. Hopper's woman has the vacant gaze of someone lost in thought, perhaps planning what to do that day, perhaps asking what's the purpose of all this. Hopper speaks of the weariness lurking in middle-class, mid-20th century America and a longing for authentic human connection.

In nine preparatory sketches for this painting, we watch Hopper carefully work out the staging of the woman, the light, the room. The naked lady staring out the window was one of Hopper's favorite motifs.

Crewdson often uses nude or scantily clad characters, too. The nudity adds a sexy psychological charge and highlights the separation we feel from the people's inner lives; they bare all but their thoughts. And both artists use light to set the mood, direct our attention, and hint at stories. These suggested narratives tap a craving for magic and myth in an America increasingly populated by cookie-cutter products and places, all standardized, artificially flavored, and plastic.

The danger in all their fiddling with the brightness, tone, and volume knobs is that their dramas can become overproduced and wooden. Crewdson's 2004 "Untitled (Woman at the Vanity)" shows a middle-aged couple in their middle-class carpeted bedroom. The man, in pajamas, sits on the side of the bed staring at the floor, bent under the weight of life. The woman, in just a bra and slip, stands in the foreground staring coolly at a sparrow that has flown in the open patio door and alighted on her vanity like some sort of miracle. The drama, the surprise feels too tidy, shoehorned in.

Hopper, who died in 1967 and will receive a retrospective at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in May, has similar faults. He could paint like a dream -- his watercolors of Gloucester from the 1920s are stunning in their clarity -- but in paintings like "Morning in a City," despite the careful staging, his execution is clumsy, his landscapes and architecture turn mushy, his people stiff. Still I'm drawn into their dramas. Crewdson's photos, in particular, are like cheese curls for me: Can't stop eating them, but they're not exactly nutritious. I happily forgive these artists' flaws for the fun of their mysteries, their romantic nostalgia, the beauty of the light, for what their scenes reveal about our desires, our dreams -- if we let them.