New York

Gerry Morehead

The Clocktower

Two often contradictory tasks face any serious artist: to participate in a wide-ranging discourse that includes the formal concerns identified as the realm of the esthetic and the more topical concerns that tie art to contemporary life, and thus to history (these latter are often dismissed by formalists as merely “sociological”); and to hoist an array of baffles to disturb that discourse and to deflect the predations of those explainers who would too easily reduce the work to a package, a cipher of itself that can be used more conveniently as a token in the spectacle of cultural exchange. Gerry Morehead has always seemed highly conscious of this problem, producing a body of work which, over the years, has seemed apposite and yet oddly obscure. (As this review went to press a small exhibition of Morehead’s older work opened at the Kitchen.) Morehead is of a generation that has found renewed interest in paint, not so much because of its material qualities as because of its role as a culturally laden medium of representation. His paintings abound in references to art and to the world beyond art, some of which are quite specific, others more generalized; a certain kind of narrative is implied, a narrative of explanation, but it remains no more than an implication.

In this show Morehead exhibited seven smallish canvases. Each of five of these was dominated by a single image dissolving into many incidental details and rebuses, which often seem dictated as much by the interior logic of the work as by the originating image. The remaining two canvases were blank, white from an uninflected gesso surface. In a sense functioning as no more than a rhythmic device within the specifics of this installation, these two paintings nevertheless provided a key to the show as a whole, for their presence served as a sign of the artist’s self-consciousness, a clue to the viewer that all decisions in the show were to be understood as intentional. These white paintings are the tabula rasa from which sprang the others, and as such represent a beginning, but also acknowledge the end.

While these two paintings, in context, indicate that Morehead intends to be understood as thinking about painting and representation in painting, the contextualization works both ways, with the five other canvases helping to suggest another, more sardonic reading. The imagery that animates these five is that of the marketplace, and in particular the exoticism of the Casbah. It is the market as spectacle in its crudest, most obvious form, the market that appeals to the tourist and the movie director. The imagery runs the gamut from rugs to drugs, from street urchins to old women, and it is presented as pastiche, referring not just to movies, but also to a range of art from Delacroix to Picasso to the formulaic products of Montmartre or Washington Square. Within this range of loaded information the blank paintings suddenly loom up again, unmistakable counters in another, equally spectacular, equally picturesque market—that of art.

There is a sense in which Morehead’s work can be taken as being political, and it is the only sense in which art can be political and hope to succeed—and that is through the creation of a dialectic of meaning and the means by which meaning is expressed. Morehead’s art is political in the sense that it searches for the possibility of individual decision-making within a thoroughly conventionalized system, an unsystematic investigation of types of information, of imagery, and of codes. It is a discourse on limits and possibilities, an acknowledgement and celebration of uncertainty.

Thomas Lawson