New York

Malcolm Morley

Clocktower Productions

Malcolm Morley, known for his glowing, Photo-Realist paintings of cruise ships, has committed a complete reversal of that work in his current show. His new pictures, thickly worked over with paint, come in eccentric shapes, are filled with abstruse symbolism, are often muddy and difficult to read, and repeatedly offer images of violence and disaster. To anyone familiar with Morley’s earlier concerns, it hardly needs to be said that these pictures glance backward with considerable bitterness. In a sense, they are at work smashing up and eulogizing the spare, clean, affluent, placid and sometimes innocent world in which his first characters and objects lived. And the new paintings may signify some introspective retreat, partly because they are esoteric, but also because that world of luxury cruises was a kind of publicly accessible ideal (however dubious) after which one might hunger. Morley’s catastrophes have the private quality of nightmares, and the nostalgia with which they are treated is a highly circumstantial and personal thing.

An airplane crash appears in several pictures; on different occasions the plane plunges into a ship, a bed of flowers, a cloud of smoke and flame, and a glutinous, unreadable mass next to a portrait of a bearded gentleman with a pistol (part of a composite work called Passion for the Funeral of Vincent Van Gogh.). Elsewhere in the show there are a train wreck, a disfigured crucifix and a construction bearing the name “General Eisenhower” which holds a toy rifle and a gunbelt. There are less terrifying events in a few of the pictures, and these may show the most stubborn symbolism of all: one small diptych juxtaposes a “10,000-year-old Texas cave painting” with a simple church steeple.

The train wreck is, for me, one of the more interesting paintings, perhaps because it is one of the least cryptic, or in any case, because its attempt to be a cipher is transparent enough to become simply a matter of style. The train wreck, an aerial view (or so it seems—vantage point is not always clearly defined in Morley’s pictures) of mangled passenger cars and a scrawl of broken track, is bordered left and right by newspaper headlines in Japanese, and on the bottom by a passage in Cyrillic letters. As if it were not enough that these are alphabets illegible, hence mysterious, to most English-speaking people, Morley has reversed the letters—what we see is a mirror-image of the originals. The outcome of this manipulation is that the train wreck seems an event whose significance is lost in the past. Its specifics cannot be resuscitated by memory—only the aura of the event persists. What was written about it is indecipherable and backward, yellowed and fragmentary. The exact horror of the event has been supplanted by nostalgia; a violet graces the lower right-hand corner of the scene. Flowers, indeed, play a major part in the airplane crashes as well; the grimness of these disasters always gives way to blossoms and light, indicating a paradoxical, lascivious fascination with the violent and a permeating sentimentality. One thinks of William Carlos Williams’ poem “To All Gentleness,” in which bomb-bursts are made analogous td the budding of flowers.

However interesting they are to interpret, Morley’s pictures are undercut by numerous flaws. The most salient are the reconditeness of so many of the pictures and their generally poor craftsmanship. The former might not be a fault on its own (meaning can emerge with time) but in company with the latter it makes the pictures tangled, reclusive, and somewhat hostile to the viewer. Morley’s failure of craft consists largely, I think, in the misapplication of his crude and thick impasto to minute details whose significance is already hard to fathom. This is one more way of making the paintings defy our understanding.

Leo Rubinfien