Los Angeles

Jim Morris

Jan Kessner Gallery

Twenty small photographs and paintings—some of clouds and some of an old California mission—presented in identical tasteful walnut frames, resurrect a conversation between painting and photography that in any sense but a historical one is decidedly tired. To point out that photography is no less a dispassionate register of objective truth than painting, hardly constitutes a revelation at this juncture.

Jim Morris’ photographs of the mission are astonishingly beautiful. Some of them boast painterly effects that result from layering several negatives on top of each other; corrosive streaks, stormy atmospheres, and unspecified abstract patterns cover the front of the broken-down mission and fill in the backgrounds. At first glance, these works could be mistaken for old found prints. Pictures of crumbling facades, church bells, and religious crosses are genuinely haunting, yet, while on the one hand, the gloom that they convey is tactile and arresting, on the other, the sense of an old standard lingers. They seem uncomfortably like something we have seen a thousand times before. The spookiness of the mission is palpable, but the straight-ahead sincerity of the work pleads: “Can you feel it?” And maybe the answer is simply “Not anymore.” This work banks on a nostalgic heart pang; its woeful sentiments are a bit too earnest and encrusted with unfortunate layers of romance.

The painted and photographed clouds are not given the same layered treatment as the mission. They are intended to speak for themselves and, to a certain extent, they do; big puffy clouds with a ray of sun bursting through are inspirational in a generic sort of way. Morris aims for the spiritual—for a silent glory evoking the transitory nature of life and a bit of heavenly eternity. But whatever the clouds manage to say on film is flatly negated in the oil on wood paintings. Morris’ concept is thin and reads merely as a stylistic gesture; one is left with something suggesting a cross between moody film noir and a pathetic Hallmark card. Is the point that the painted versions are as affectless as the photos are trumped-up? Perhaps, but this inversion of expectations has been exhaustively and more shrewdly mined elsewhere. If the air of significance is more sincerely meant, as I suspect it is, the problem here is that the work itself is both diminutive and vague, and its attempts to court the transcendent ring hollow. In the end this impulse is a weak excuse to make pictures. Perhaps the work aspires to replenish the soul, but it accomplishes little more than a faint display of beauty.

Benjamin Weissman

#image 1#