|Malcolm Morley at Sperone Westwater
Art in America, October 2005, p. 168-169.
1 October 2005
In this recent exhibition, titled The Art of Oil Painting, Malcolm Morley showed a dozen large canvases from the past three year that mark both a turning point and new high point in his long career. The works feature brilliantly colored, slick surfaces and action-packed images of sports scenes, car crashes and a collapsing building. The latter, House in Brooklyn, features a kind of crazy-quilt pattern made of colorful triangles and irregular grids that describe the interior of an apartment house whose entire facing has fallen away.
The shows title piece, and the largest work on view at about 9 by 6 feet, is a powerful, two-part image of race-car crashes. In the top half of the canvas two silvery vehicles appear to fly side-by-side over several other cars that have crashed on the smoke-filled track. The lower portion, based on a photo of the 2001 crash that killed NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, shows a head-on collision at the moment of impact, with auto parts exploding in the air. Another resplendent work is Theory of Catastrophe, an aerial view of a multi-car and truck pileup on a freeway. The lively canvas, with the bold white and silver forms of skewed tractor trailers thrusting across the darker surfaces of the roadway, suggests a classic Franz Kline painting.
Significantly, in this time of war, the artist has turned away from nostalgic images of old battleships and World War I fighter planes, which preoccupied him for some years; also gone are the 3-D elements that he often incorporated into his paintings. Instead, Morley employs a newly refined, photo-based, squaring-up technique that recalls his pioneering Surrealist works of the 1960s and 70s. However, instead of using watercolors or postcards as models for the paintings, as in the past, he selects images from newspapers and magazines, putting them through Photoshop to enhance the compositions.
In an essay for this shows catalogue, art historian Robert Hobbs says that some of Morleys recent themes evolved after he injured his hip. Laid up in bed, he thought about the movement of the body, especially the strenuous efforts of athletes. Batters Box features an overhead view of home plate; its brilliant white geometric shape vibrates against a searing orange ground as Sammy Sosa, identified by the name on his shirt, stretches to connect with the ball. Racers dynamic composition is a sweeping diagonal showing a downhill skier straining to maneuver a gate, and in Neck and Neck two jockeys vie for positions as their horses gallop towards the finish line. A speed swimmer gasping for air is the subject of Backstroke. Crystalline facets made of frenzied brushstrokes surround the head in this, the latest example of Morleys distinctive depictions of water.
Each work in this engaging show conveys a kind of compressed tension that either anticipates extreme action and violent movement or is found in the immediate aftermath. One of the best of all, Tackle, shows two Dallas Cowboys pouncing on a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Morley manages to evoke the dynamism of the act simply by emphasizing the colliding trios helmets glistening in the sun.
- David Ebony