|Don't Stop, Just Paint
online.wsj.com (The Wall Street Journal)
7 March 2012
New Haven, Conn.
"The Theory of Catastrophe" (2004)--a big overhead view of a freeway pileup painted by Malcolm Morley in a deliberately offhand, close-enough-for-government-work version of Photo Realism--could well be painting's riposte to the reason the photographer Garry Winogrand gave for photographing something: to see what it would look like photographed. Mr. Morley wanted to see what such a chaotic scene would look like painted. Of course, the obvious objection to this comparison is photography's supposed machine-made "objectivity"--even in this digital age of Photoshop. Mr. Morley, though, is himself something of a painting machine. That's a compliment, meant in the same way you might call Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer tennis "machines."
Mr. Morley was born in 1931 in London. His family's house was blown up by a German bomb during the Blitz; homeless for a time, he led a rough-and-tumble youth. Serving a three-year sentence in the Dickensian-sounding Wormwood Scrubs prison for breaking and entering, the young Mr. Morley read "Lust for Life," the novel about Vincent van Gogh and, he later told a critic, he figured that being an artist was something he could do. After attending art school in London, he moved to New York in the late 1950s. There he met Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and was set on a course combining Warhol's wan acceptance of practically any subject that passed in front of his face as suitable for painting with Lichtenstein's surgical irony toward the paradox of the painted imageis it just a bunch of borrowed colored shapes, or is anything meaningful fully there?
For more than half a century, Mr. Morley has attacked that paradox by painting and painting and painting. He's taken his brushes and palette on a wild ride from dreary English postwar realism ("Richmond Hill Below the Wick," 1954) to hard-core Photo Realism (the ocean liner "Cristoforo Colombo," 1965), varieties of neo-expressionism ("Camels and Goats," 1980), cliché-embracing pulp-illustration pictures of World War II fighter planes ("Beautiful Explosion," 2010) and, most recently, veritable installation art (an exterior segment of a pub called "The Spitfire," 2012). All of this and more is engagingly crammed into the modestly proportioned art gallery of the Yale School of Art, a little minimalist building that's usually used for graduate-thesis exhibitions. "Malcolm Morley in a Nutshell" was curated by Robert Storr, the school's director, and it's an art education all by itself.
An awful lot of expertly improvisational painting moves--oddball compositions, deft brush strokes, snappy colors, risky gimmicks such as miniature 3-D barrels hanging by wires in "Depth Mine with Sharks" (2011)--are in action at a breakneck pace. While a few artists might be better at paint-handling than Mr. Morley, he does keep his colors separate and crisp, and he can make you shiver at the dark, cold wetness of Atlantic Ocean water. A certain visual garrulousness is part of his charm.
But he isn't perfectand he probably wouldn't want to be. A couple of titles ("Aero-naughty-cal Manuever" from 2009, for instance) are too cute. A painting called "Split Level" (2011) is an expedient top-and-bottom reprise of two previous paintings, and one of the pub installations, "Biggles" (2011), is too sentimental for real translation into a work of art, yet too garish to convey genuine affection. "Rat Tat Tat" (2001), a 17-foot-wide triptych depicting cardboard punch-out models of World War I aircraft--and the least successful work in the show--is installed directly above the gallery entrance, as if to encourage you to miss it.
In the end, though, Mr. Morley is great at representation, not just verisimilitude. He paints whatever wows him at the moment, and manages most times to find the superficial essence (a deliberate oxymoron here) of his enthusiastically varied subjects. Mr. Morley's emphasis on finding his artistic inspiration outside of himself is what keeps his art from succumbing--as so much contemporary work does these days--to overintellectualizing and bottomless self-reference. "The idea," Mr. Morley has said, "is to have no idea. Get lost. Get lost in the landscape." By landscape, he means the hurly-burly of the world at large--ships, airplanes, naval battles, exotic animals, pubs and the occasional catastrophe. The exhibition is a kind of tribute to the good, old-fashioned, lusty painter's life, and--although Mr. Morley is in his ninth decadean artistic spirit that's still as young as they come.
- Peter Plagens
Mr. Plagens is a New York-based painter and writer.
A version of this article appeared Mar. 8, 2012, on page D6 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Don't Stop, Just Paint.