Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Trouble in Paradise" (on Jim Morphesis' Wounds of Existence exhibition) by Douglas Messerli

trouble in paradise
by Douglas Messerli

Daughter of Jove, relentless power,
Thou tamer of the human breast,
Whose iron scourge and torturing hour
The bad affraight, afflict the best!
                                 Thomas Gray, Hymn to Adversity

Jim Morphesis Wounds of Existence, curated by Peter Selz, Pasadena Museum of California Art, the show opened on January 24, 2015; I attended a panel discussion with the artist and Jay Belloli, moderated by Howard Fox on January 25, 2015.

Early in a discussion with the artist, Jim Morphesis, speaking in a public conversation about his new exhibition, “Wounds of Existence,” curated by Peter Selz at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, panelist Jay Belloli asked the artist how, upon moving to Los Angeles from Philadelphia, his painting was affected. It appeared that instead of representing a radical shift, Morphesis’ work—so different from most artists who immigrated to the “Golden” State—became even more moody and troubling in its depiction of religious and Greek mythology. Morphesis quipped, after also explaining that during the same period he had been attending the early and troubled years at CalArts (California Institute of Arts), that “This place [Los Angeles} needed something dark.” 
    His contrarian point of view reveals something important about the expressionist-influenced artist, who worked throughout the early 1980s—a time of rising performance- and theoretically-based art—in intensely personal abstractions of classical historical masterworks such as Diego Velázquez (in No Sanctuary, 1981) and Giovanni Bellini (in Destiny, 1982). Indeed, for much of the next decade, until he returned to New York City late in that decade, the artist continued exploring elements of Greek mythology in works centered upon Prometheus and Icarus.

    Obviously, for Morphesis this return to his childhood immersion in his Greek Orthodox religion was part of a natural evolution which he could not resist: he describes his childhood encounters with the “incredible performances” of ceremony and the overwrought objects of church services. Yet, even though he felt he was “resurrecting (an important word given his recurring usage of the icon of Christ upon the cross) an image that had been lost,” he clearly felt some discomfort in openly declaring his private compulsions. In works such as Sanctuary, for instance, the stunningly goldleaf- and turquoise-painted imagery and the repeated iconic figures of the resurrection are counterbalanced and often covered over with painted abstractions and constructed frames and overlays that almost suggest a simultaneous attempt to blot out the art he was “resurrecting. In many of these works, words, which originally were central to the pieces, were painted over. Even personal letters (from friends and former lovers) were embedded within, all clearly representative of what, as panel moderator Howard Fox probingly hinted, was clearly a sort of psycho-drama going on that was not apparent in his personal relationships with the artist (whom both Howard and I have known for about 30 years). Perhaps this is most obvious in Cross in Gray of 1981, in which the cross itself is hidden behind what appears to be slathers of cement, nearly all representational matter having been nearly buried.*

     If his need to explore his classical roots, both in terms of his art and personal heritage, was the sustaining force of his art, it was also clearly involved an inner turmoil, either brought on by the time in which he lived wherein most of his colleagues were pushing in totally other directions or by a personal resistance to the subject itself. Yet that shifted, apparently, quite quickly, by only a year later, in works such as Destiny, in which two troubled figures seem locked within a relationship from which, it is quite apparent, neither of them is able to break away from the other. Tell Me Stories of the same year, gives permission to the hidden words Morphesis previously covered over; and increasingly, throughout the next several years, his art more openly struggled with forthright considerations of the “wounding,” as Selz defined it, or the torture and inevitable end of life. There are few paintings that more are more insistent on representing the concept of momento mori than Morphesis’ Skull and Red Door, the door painted with the color of carnality, promising perhaps a kind purification through the word written upon it, shower, but remaining determinedly shut against the inevitable fate of the sinner, perhaps denied even the pleasures of his own life. 
     How different are these from the two works in this show representing the art Morphesis created in his short stay in New York. In Female Torso with Green Doors of 1989, the figure is represented as almost thrusting open the previously closed doors** to push herself forward as a voluptuous nude, a kind of open display of Aphrodite’s temptations without guilt and, apparently, consequences.

     Yet upon his return to Los Angeles, Morphesis once again shifted back to themes of burden, torture, and death in his stunningly beautiful Marsyas series of the early millennial years, invoked by the slabs of freshly slaughtered beef he daily witnessed from a nearby packing plant as well as representing Morphesis’ recollection of seeing Rembrandt’s atypical painting Carcass of Beef (Le Boeuf corch) in the Louvre. The myth the title eludes to concerns the Greek satyr whom Apollo flayed alive for the beauty of his song, suggesting again that art and love ends inevitably in torture and horrible death; or, to put another way, as the poet Thomas Gray writes in the passage I quote above, Jove’s daughter Venus (Zeus’ Aphrodite), in taming the human heart, forces mankind to suffer the “iron scourge and torturing hour.” 
     Even in his seemingly loving floral paintings of this decade, the Rose series, we immediately recognize that these roses do not merely represent the beautifully twisting petals of the plant, but call up all the sexual connotations of the rose as well as reminding us, once again, the hollows of the skull, and, in their lachrymose extrusions, representative of something that inevitably brings about pain and suffering as much as pleasure and joy. And, in this sense, the roses too become another momento mori. They are dying before our very eyes!
     In the retrospection of this revelatory show, we realize that perhaps what Morphesis was attempting to conceal early on in his artifacts was just this painful interlocution between love and death, particularly given the inevitable suffering and torturing hours that inevitably results. Surely it might have been easier to turn his attention to the Pacific landscape, to dance in the sunset, or query the increasing international community surrounding him; but those were not directions with this instinctually committed artist could go. Obviously, the desire to into look into the face of suffering was already in the artist’s DNA by the time he arrived in what others described as paradise.

*Actually, the substance was a kind of home-made concoction of materials: Rhoplex (an ancrylic binder) was combined with Rutile (a granulated mineral used in ceramic glazers) and glass micro beads (used for sand-blasting and for reflective paints) as well as metallic pigments.
**Interestingly, Morphesis described the doors he remembers from the Orthodox mass as being closed, when the priests retreated behind the doors.

Los Angeles, January 27, 2015

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