New York

Abelardo Morell

Bonni Benrubi Gallery

This show of Abelardo Morell’s large black and white photographs drew from three different series: pictures of photographic apparatuses and simple optical phenomena, rooms transformed into camera obscuras, and manipulated closeups of pictures in art books. In all three groups of work, photographic realism is turned inside out, lifting the veil on the mystery of appearances.

Morell’s informally formal pictures of photographic apparatuses portray the ghost in the machine as a charming eccentric. In My Camera and Me, 1991, the artist wryly contemplates his hanged-man image in the ground glass. Morell’s techniques have a similar, disarming simplicity. In the camera obscura pictures, ordinary rooms (mostly in Morell’s house) are transformed into cameras by covering the windows with black plastic. Through a tiny hole in the covering, the image outside enters and is projected upside down and backwards onto the back wall of the room. Morell then sets up a camera and makes a long exposure to produce photographs that include the image from outside as well as inside the room. These photographs are reality sandwiches, ghostly and delightful at the same time. In Camera Obscura Image of Brookline View in Brady’s Room, 1992, trees and rooftops are suspended upside down over a child’s toy-strewn room. On the floor below is a toy castle surrounded by a herd of plastic dinosaurs. A menacingly shadowed TRex lifts his head and roars up at the hanging world.

For his illustrated book series, Morell photographs art books containing reproductions of works by Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael, El Greco, Caravaggio, Piranesi, and Goya. Through the subtle manipulation of light, focus, perspective, and printing techniques, Morell exploits the sumptuous reflectivity of ink on paper, the swelling arc of the page, and the seductive shadow of the fold, creating an intimate scopophilic experience. In an image of facing page details from Masaccio’s Saint Anne, Madonna and Child with Angels, only the Madonna’s foreshortened right eye and elongated right hand are in focus, while the child’s features are softened by distance, and his intricate halo has disappeared.

In a remarkable image that was also part of the “New Photography” series at MoMA, Two Portraits by da Vinci and School of da Vinci, 1994, Morell superimposed Lady with an Ermine and the so-called Belle Ferronnière, apparently by merely turning the page of a book with the camera shutter open, forming a composite that is really a topological reading of this pair of paintings. The two subjects, who are dressed similarly and have identical hair styles, are combined into one Janus-faced portrait of innocence and experience, giving credence to the idea that both paintings are portraits of Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Leonardo’s employer, the Duke of Milan, separated only by time. The younger Cecilia is as emblematic of virtue and purity as the white ermine she holds in her arms, while the older Cecilia shows the strain of court life and intrigue in her eyes as she turns away. The finely modeled Leonardine hand stretches across both of them to rest on the weasel’s back, and to gently touch the hand of the -reader that turns the page. In his handling of the image, Morell has softened and blurred the edges of everything, creating his own version of sfumato.

Morell’s photographs have a quality of quiet elegance that might at first be mistaken for mere facility. Though they take time to astonish, astonish they do.

David Levi Strauss