Return of the Malc

Malcolm Morley just loves the act of putting paint on canvas

It's the grandly surreal Farewell to Crete (1984), however, that most captivates. This nearly 7-foot-by-14-foot concoction has echoes of Picasso and Dali, among others, in its jumble of distorted imagery, which includes horses, nude sunbathers, statuary, and other elements suggestive of a Mediterranean setting. Like other paintings from this period, these derive not from photos but from drawings and watercolors Morley made, sometimes while traveling by barge as a member of an amateur watercolor society.

But what's most striking about the pieces in this gallery is Morley's abrupt abandonment of superrealism for his own idiosyncratic variation on expressionism. The dramatic dislocations and disruptions of scale and continuity are the exhibition's most forceful reiterations of its premise that Morley is, and has always been, in love with painting itself. While it's easy to admire the artist's early "fidelity paintings" for their clarity and technical mastery, you have to be able to appreciate his pure pleasure in making marks on surfaces to make much sense of Farewell to Crete and its companions.

I can't really say I like some of the '80s and '90s paintings, especially the ones dominated by ship and airplane imagery. But I admire the rigor and vigor with which he appears to be wrestling with his own inner demons. There's not room here to go into Morley's turbulent personal life, although the wall text panels provide a good sense of it.

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.

The exhibition concludes with a handful of recent paintings that have never been shown in the United States, and they mark a thrilling return to superrealism. Like the car-crash images that kick off the show — Death of Dale Earnhardt (2003) and The Art of Painting (2005) — these are action paintings in the most literal sense, portraying such things as athletes caught in performance, a chain-reaction highway pileup, and Afghan horsemen playing the ancient game buzkashi. (The latter is taken from a New York Times photo but also bears an uncanny resemblance to the foreground of The Battle of Tetuán by Dali, who knew Morley.)

Morley comes full circle and then goes beyond with these works, which only confirm his mastery of a medium he so clearly adores and whose possibilities he finds almost infinite. For him, the act of painting and the art of painting are one and the same.

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