Malcolm Morley at Sperone Westwater
April 18 to June 6, 2015
257 Bowery (between Stanton and Houston streets)
New York, 212 999 7337
Turner Prize-winning painter Malcolm Morley is currently exhibiting a striking new body of paintings and installation works at the Sperone Westwater. An accompanying monograph has also been published by the gallery. Throughout his expansive 60-year career, Morley has deftly surfed between rigid art-world categorizations such as abstraction, Pop art, photorealism and Expressionism. Ignoring such strictures has allowed Morley to stay true to his subjects — most recently his fascination with military histories and vintage paper models of planes — and, in the process, reveal hints of his own life story and obsessions.
The artist’s fascination with war harkens back to his boyhood in London. During World War II enemy forces bombed his family’s home. The family hurriedly left the house that night, never to return and Morley was deeply affected by this tragedy. During my recent visit to his Long Island studio, he revealed that his last, most poignant memory of home was the distinct image of his newly painted model airplane left sitting on the windowsill of his bedroom.
In these recent works, Morley scripts his color-laden fighter planes, battleships, forts and cannons into raucous, nonsensical battle scenarios — combinations of events and timelines plausible only from a child’s point of view. His recurrent lexicon of war imagery, adapted from vintage toys and model kits, once again resurfaces here. They evince a subtle but important shift in technique, towards a more expressionist brush mark, a loosening of the underlying grid, and a distortion or abstraction of surface. Buttery, sensuous brushstrokes compete with more textural applications of paint. In Freighter with Primary Colors and B2 Bombers (2013), paint is applied as physically articulated marks, both dry-brush and juicy, in stippled applications. The textural elements indicate splashing waves and bombs dropping. Meanwhile, deftly modeled tones of blue and white create poetic transitions in the sky and clouds. The bands of color that make up the deck of the sea vessel are slab-like marks that create tension and physicality as abstraction, a merger of historical fact and pure artistic license. The B2 bombers in this painting are decorated with a variety of stripes and patterns borrowed from aircraft insignia used to guide pilots in recognizing allied aircraft and sea vessels more effectively in the era before advanced radar and radio technologies took over. In the painting Dakota,(2015) the carnivalesque battle engages military forces of historical implausibility. With exaggerated, child-like renderings, history hits the blender as a Viking ship, lighthouse, train and German fighter plane are orchestrated across a silky cobalt green expanse. Although he is depicting naturalistic imagery, Morley does so by magnifying the abstract nature of his materials and subjects.
A number of works in the show incorporate paper assemblage and mixed media installation. In The Searchers (2014) two hand-decorated model airplanes are physically affixed to the cloudy blue sky of the painting plane at oblique angles. Morley explains he attaches the planes as such “to create shadows.” In the largest and most ambitious work in the show, Napoleon Crossing the Alps with Cannon (2014), painting and sculptural components merge into a theatrical, diagrammatic installation. The artist renders Napoleon on horseback, his equestrian pose borrowed from the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David. A paper-and-encaustic cannon, replete with a stack of cannonballs, occupies the floor space in front of the painting, the weaponry aimed directly at the portrait. They’re a commanding presence, seemingly attacking Napoleon’s portrait and the regal militarism for which it stands.
Twisting military fact with fiction, Morley’s illogical narratives can sometimes bewilder beyond patient observation. But the vintage model airplanes, now a primary component of his illusionist reliefs, expand our experience beyond the nostalgia of his biography into a critique of dominant culture’s obsession with militarism. More importantly, their presence on and around the painted image allows for a heightened experience of time and place, both real and imagined, by creating a theatrically staged experience of Morley’s underlying narrative.print