Return of the Malc

Malcolm Morley just loves the act of putting paint on canvas

"Malcolm Morley: The Art of Painting," now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, is the final installment in a trio of exhibitions surveying the careers of painters who are very different yet also very similar, and what a smashing conclusion it is. Think of the series as MoCA's Lord of the Rings, with the Morley show as its triumphant Return of the King.

The trilogy began in 2001 with "Roy Lichtenstein: Inside/Outside," then moved on to "Richard Artschwager: 'Painting' Then and Now" in 2003. As satisfying as those two exhibitions were, they could hardly prepare us for the scale and bombast of "The Art of Painting."

Almost 40 paintings are included, most monumental in size, and the range of subject matter is vast, from cruise ships and their passengers to athletes in action to tribal figures to planes and boats and cars. And Morley has approached — or sometimes, it seems, attacked — his raw material using equally varied styles and techniques. As you move through the galleries in a roughly chronological progression, you may need to remind yourself that this is indeed the output of a single artist.

Morley's superrealism is back in new paintings Theory of Catastrophe and Backstroke.
Morley's superrealism is back in new paintings Theory of Catastrophe and Backstroke.

Morley's medium of choice is oil, supplemented (especially early on) by other paints such as acrylic, watercolor, Liquitex, and Magnacolor. An early preference for canvas seems to have been replaced over the years by a yen for linen. He has consistently but sparingly used such accents as wax, gold leaf, and objects of wood and plaster. And in the past few years, he has even incorporated such things as diamond chips, glass beads, and worn-out paintbrushes into some paintings, always subtly and effectively.

Although Morley has lived in the United States since 1958 and became a citizen in 1990, he was born in London in 1931 and was influenced by the traditions of English maritime and landscape painting, to which he applied his own characteristic twists. The exhibition begins with a handful of 1960s works in a style generally described as photorealism. The artist himself prefers the designation "superrealism," although he also likes "fidelity painting."

Regardless of what you call them, some of these paintings still astonish. His famous SS Amsterdam in front of Rotterdam, painted in 1966 from a photographic reproduction, portrays an oversized ocean liner slicing the canvas diagonally against the backdrop of the Dutch city. From several feet away, the image really does look like an enlarged photo, only to reveal its painterly qualities as you move closer. Castle With Sailboats (1969) has a similar impact.

For other superrealistic pictures from this period, Morley worked from slick promotional materials such as brochures, resulting in the glamorous staged tableaux, complete with actor Jerry Orbach, of Ship's Dinner Party(1966), and Diving Champion (1967), taken from a page of a Goodyear calendar, with corporate logo faithfully re-created below an almost impossibly perfect snapshot of a male in mid-dive as a coyly posed female looks on from the platform.

In Coronation and Beach Scene, from a year later, Morley juxtaposes two contradictory, elaborately composed scenes, one piled atop the other: a horse-drawn carriage conveying Queen Elizabeth II and a cluttered waterfront cafe, with sunbathers in the foreground and the ocean in the distance. The wealth of detail in both scenarios is simultaneously overwhelming and exhilarating, and this uneasy combination gives the image a weird grandeur in which the whole is much greater than either of its parts.

It should be noted that while Morley almost always works from reproductions rather than from life — photos for the earlier paintings, watercolors for the later ones — he usually divides his source material into a grid and inverts it. He then tackles the grid square by square in a methodical manner. This distance allows him to concentrate on translating the square's contents to paint. As MoCA director and exhibition curator Bonnie Clearwater puts it in her long, illuminating catalog essay: "Each element [is] thereby reduced to its abstract essence. Morley has described this technique as a democratic way of constructing a painting. All parts are equally important."

Morley continued with this technique even after he started using larger, more vigorous brushstrokes in the early 1970s. In his 1972 reinterpretation of the Raphael masterpiece School of Athens, he got so caught up that he didn't notice until later that a whole row of grid squares in the center of the image were slightly off-register, so that tops of heads seem to hover in space a few inches away from where they should be. The effect might be comical if it weren't so jarring, and I suspect that Morley was so pleased with this accident that he left it rather than correcting it.

School of Athens hangs about midway through the show, in a gallery surrounded by four large canvases that seem willfully bizarre. Christmas Tree (The Lonely Ranger Lost in the Jungle of Erotic Desires) (1979) is a closeup of the titular tree wildly overdecorated with such things as a cowboy brandishing a dildo at an Indian, a derailed toy train, tropical birds, shapely but disembodied female legs, cacti, and snakes. The large vertical Macaws, Bengals With Mullet(1982) features a similarly congested composition layering birds, tigers, and fish, while Arizonac (1981) is a much sparer mix of two ornately costumed Indian figures against a desert Southwest backdrop, with a tiny Indian on horseback (misidentified as a cowboy in the text panel and catalog) in one corner.

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