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.

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.

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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