Washington, DC

Malcolm Morley

Baumgartner Galleries

The five paintings and three watercolors in this exhibition showed that Malcolm Morley has come a long way from his “Hyper-Real” paintings of the ’70s. Those works, for which he is justly famous, uncannily foreshadowed the postmodern problematization of painting. In 1970’s Race Track, for instance, Morley meticulously rendered a picture postcard of the horse oval in Durban, South Africa. When he canceled the image by painting a large red X through it, he both turned the work into a political statement and reversed the artist’s traditional role from creating images of reality to critiquing those images. Perhaps because he was too deeply imbued with the love of painting pictures, however, Morley avoided the endgame in which these concerns led many an artist to disregard painting as a viable endeavor. Instead, as the works on view demonstrate, Morley has continued to make painting and “realism” a meaningful enterprise.

Santa Maria with Sopwith Camel Wing, 1996, includes one of Columbus’ ships, a sinking World War I biplane, and a hot-air balloon floating in a cloudy sky. The temporal-historical discrepancies are accentuated! by Morley’s use of inconsistent light sources on the different conveyances, and the different styles in which each object is rendered: the Sopwith Camel is carefully modeled, while the ship, outlined in ruled black lines, seems more drawn or drafted than painted. The balloon, composed of flat, temperalike areas of unmodeled color, is placed against a painterly sky with rose-tinted clouds built of layers of glazes. These clouds contrast with the coarse, gestural strokes used for the waves and the watercolor stippling technique used for the splashing foam.

Mixing techniques and treatments prevents the composition from cohering seamlessly. Its elements hover between fusion and dissolution, like a series of vignettes coarsely stitched together. The same methods arc found in the 1997 works, though their effects are much subtler. MV Perception with Cargo of Primary Colors and Black and White (its title alludes to the artist’s palette and multiple perspectives) depicts a brightly painted freighter viewed from above as if it were a model or toy boat transporting blocks of pigment; the rough seas through which it plows are only a narrow band of water surrounding the ship, while the rest of the surface is an unrelated field of bright yellow.

To create these works, Morley sets small paper models of their subjects against flat backdrops and paints them as still fifes. This is why the components of these clunky vignettes arc reminiscent less of real-life boats and things than of props or toys. It also helps Morley achieve his eccentricities of space and perspective. Treating the objects he depicts more as abstractions than as faithful visual representations, Morley insures that the references in these paintings, whether to Columbus’ vessel or the World War II German warship of The Raider, remain at arm’s length, suspended in time. His intention is not to create a historical space in which to recall real events. Rather, it is to conjure up a nostalgic space containing memories. In their childlike simplicity there is something almost Proustian about these moments salvaged from a boyhood spent in an England threatened with doom. The artist is careful to separate memory from history; memory, he knows, is not a record of the past but a story about the past based on how it turned out. In their bright colors and war-game innocence, these pictures clearly show a knowledge that all was won—the war, and Morley’s future as an artist. And there is little irony in that knowledge.

Howard Risatti