San Francisco

Philip Morsberger

Rena Bransten Gallery

Philip Morsberger’s work often passes pretty much unnoticed, except by other painters. It is open to misreading as the work of a younger artist under the influence of Philip Guston. His pictures do resemble Guston’s late work in their collisions of high craft and wonky imagery. But Morsberger, who is in his 50s, has decades of painting behind him. He moved to California a couple of years ago from England, where—though he is American—he was Ruskin Master of Drawing at Oxford.

Morsberger peoples his paintings with cartoonish figures that share the canvas space but mostly appear as unaware of each other as the squares and triangles in a hard edge abstraction. He treats some of these figures as though they are characters in an undisclosed narrative; some might be symbols of the artist himself, such as the unicorned figure that strides on air, cigarette in hand, through Blithe Spirit #2, 1984–88. (Painting a hand holding a cigarette without invoking Guston appears to be impossible these days.) Others, such as the snarling, demonic face in the lower right corner of Voyager, 1980–88, seem to be devices for sending our gaze ricocheting around the picture. One or two figures might have been borrowed from Hollywood or from comic books—a Disneyan gloved hand appears more than once—but far from being “appropriated,” Morsberger’s figures look like the typical fauna of an imagination educated anonymously by the entertainment industry.

There is no telling just how Morsberger means to use the figures he lets loose. Perhaps they are not meant in any conscious sense, but merely are creatures of his painting process. They might even be markers—smile and scowl buttons of the imagination—that serve as notations of his feelings about working on various parts of a picture. (The long timespans in the dates on his pictures encourage this reading.) A particular conjunction of green and orange gives him trouble, so both to control it and to caricature his own frustration, he turns it into a fuming gremlin.

What gives Morsberger’s painting more affinity with Guston than with, say, Ronnie Cutrone or Julie Wachtel, is the way his figures seem to shift references between private code, pop culture, and art historical allusion. There is a snaky figure in his picture Uncertain Serpent, 1986–88, that can only be intended as a reference to Odilon Redon’s famous human-headed snake apparition. Color is almost as referential as the figures in Morsberger’s work. There are passages that bring to mind Redon’s pastels, Gauguin’s use of thin, saturated hues over dark blue underpainting, and moments of pink, blue, and yellow fleshiness that evoke De Kooning.

Watching an artist amuse himself with his work can be tedious or irritating, but in Morsberger’s case it is enjoyable because his painterly performance is educated, graceful, and unpretentious. But a certain underlying degree of complexity seems necessary to make these performances work. The weak spots in Morsberger’s show were the few pictures in which too little happens. When his pictures are busy enough with figures and interpretive ambiguity, empty areas—sections of “pure” painting—don’t go dead. In his less busy pictures, color areas can end up looking like filler, like passages where the artist’s attention and interest flagged. The paradox of Morsberger’s paintings is that they require a great deal of tension in color, content, and composition to sustain their essentially lighthearted tone.

Kenneth Baker