New York

Malcolm Morley

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Violence seems to course through Malcolm Morley’s bronze miniatures of tanks, guns, and soldiers, as well as through paintings in which explosive color, congested compositions, and radical shifts in scale veer toward chaos. The seemingly gestural paintings, executed by projecting a grid onto a watercolor sketch and painstakingly transferring the image onto canvas, depict tropical islands where things have run amok. In Gloria, 1990, highly decorated World War I fighter planes careen above a beach where oblivious vacationers frolic in the waves, in a wacky, hallucinatory vision that points to the fact that island paradises often serve as battlegrounds ravaged by imperialist aggression. In Erotic Blando Fruto, 1989, monstrous pieces of fruit dwarf the landscape and figures, and in Caribe-Afrique, 1990, diminutive dugout canoes carrying natives drift through the slats of an enormous waterfront shanty.

Morley’s new works are hard to look at. A dense layering of shrill colors combined with shifting scale and depth of field play tricks with the eyes; frenzied tangles of expressionist brushwork suggest that Morley couldn’t make his brush move fast enough and that once in motion he was unable to stop it. Moreover, the contours of buildings, fences, foliage, and people waver as though seen through water. This is also true of the sculptures, which are crudely modeled from paper, cardboard, and encaustic, their sticky-looking surfaces kneaded obsessively. The results are molten versions of once rigid military hardware—tanks bent and twisted like bridges during bombings. Morley enhances the fragility of his forms by flattening them out in a manner reminiscent of David Smith or by elongating them à la Giacometti.

Whether Morley intends any of his mutilated war toys as a comment on military-industrial production and implementation remains a question. A semiabstract painting based on a sculpture called Marauder, 1989, transforms a sculpted tank into an image that could pass for a scene of a sunlit piazza, emptying the original of its potentially sinister content. Morley seems happiest when he lets the visual qualities of things run away with him; despite the timeliness of his display of guns and tanks (on view at the height of the gulf war), the work seems more the product of an exuberantly youthful celebration of colors and form than a mature meditation on catastrophic world events.

Lois E. Nesbitt