New York

Armando Morales

Claude Bernard Gallery

Although the Nicaraguan-born artist Armando Morales has spent much time during the last three decades in different locations throughout South America, Europe, and the United States, his true home has remained the realm of the imagination. Judging by the paintings in this recent show, all from 1987, his closest “neighbors” in this dreamlike region are Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Delvaux. Like them, Morales exploits the illusionistic force of painting to shake the usual rock-solid hold that reality has on our senses.

The paintings of figures in landscapes are the most ambitious works shown here. In these, Morales employs compositional devices and motifs closely associated with de Chirico and Delvaux. The dramatic impact of his Four Bathers and a Dog, Railroad Crossing and Three Nudes, and Harbor with Two Nudes is heightened by the same tilting ground plane and manipulation of deep space pioneered by de Chirico (and often used by Delvaux); and the nudes and bathers bring to mind Delvaux’s mysterious females. Despite such correspondences, Morales creates a pictorial world of his own that transcends comparisons. Weighted with multiple layers of symbolic content, each painting confronts us with the task of fathoming the possible meanings of the drama that appears to take place there.

Four Bathers and a Dog, for example, can be read on the most prosaic level of narrative as a scene of four women who are about to go (or who have just finished) skinny-dipping in the dark, silvery water beyond the portico within which they are standing. Accompanying them is their pet dog. It all seems rather casual at first; but on closer scrutiny the women’s poses and gestures appear more purposeful and yet at the same time hint at hidden relationships or events. This subtle interplay between casualness and tension is reinforced by the way Morales handles certain formal elements. He has painted the figures’ bare flesh as warm, luminous surfaces animated by his manner of building form through crisply silhouetted contours and softly modeled volumetric mass. The setting also contains clues to a darker reading than just four nymphs out for a swim with their favorite animal companion in tow. The far end of the portico, with its dark walls and columns and ominous shadows, is a forbidding threshold to be crossed, while just beyond is the moonlit water below a murky sky punctuated with odd pinpoints of light. The floor appears broken up into a mosaic of colors, shadows, and inclined planes, and, in the foreground, incised with mysterious straight lines that would converge if they did not suddenly disappear somewhere in the middle. An even more jarring metaphysical note is added by the strange abstract object that stands among the group of women, with a cone-shaped base, a disk for a “face,” and a curved wedge shape that seems to have emerged from the center of the disk. This fifth “figure” might be a cosmic clock that measures the symbolic time of psychic reality; or it might be some generator of spiritual light, a harbinger of what awaits the figures as they strip down to the bare essence of being and plunge into the depths of the unconscious on the journey to enlightenment.

Ronny Cohen