Los Angeles

Ivan Morley

Ivan Morley’s paintings are inspired by the frontiersman’s lore of scrappy, dried-out California towns with names like San Gabriel, El Monte, and Tehachapi. Such locales and their all-but-forgotten (and possibly artist-fabricated) histories—if you can call tales of memorable cockfights and observations on the behavior of squirrels histories—seem unlikely sources of inspiration. Yet, from a mass of myth, a dose of his own vivid imagination, and a range of raw material, Morley has created some mighty idiosyncratic pictures. The show as a whole was pulled together with a keen sense of detail, with texts telling a few of the stories rendered carefully on the walls.

To create his paintings, Morley applies dyed fabric, wax, varnish, dense patches of colored thread, and, occasionally, oil paint to a range of supports that includes denim, glass, linen, and canvas. Sometimes he paints on glass, peels the image off, and affixes it to another support. The textures and varying opacities of these surfaces contribute to the work’s material diversity; we get blocky quiltlike patterns, floral motifs, and faux-naïf, cartoonish illustrations on tie-dyed grounds. Slipped into the mix are some Indonesian-style batiks, which Morley says he learned about from LA stoner culture.

The cryptic and funny Souvenir, 2002, shows three malevolent-looking squirrels dancing on a tombstone that reads SAN GABRIEL MISSION. From its accompanying text we learn that, way back when, “The squirrels only come out for funerals, of which there are a lot . . . some spirits passing into the great unknown bourne, they sing this tune.” Another text: “Bullets only hit one side of anything here because, no matter which way they’re fired in, they always fly east with the wind.” Tehachepi (sic), 2002, Morley’s pictorial vision of this mock-Indian saying, shows the trunk and branches of a tree punctured with bullet holes and interspersed with woundlike floral shapes signaled by arrows.

The works don’t always require stories, nor is there any real need for a link from one to the other. Pieces such as All of the Groups So Far Combined, 2002, a torrent of fishlike embroidered shapes on a brown linen field, and A True Tale, 2000–2002, made up of squares of thread in bright hues of tomato, tangerine, and sky blue, are freewheeling and buoyant in their near-abstraction. Delicate flowers cover the surface of one of several works titled El Monte (this one from 2002), resulting in a hybrid of decorative textile and magic landscape.

Aphorisms like “Pattern and sewing make literal passing time” and “O repetition, help me invest in the singular” are one route into Morley’s paintings—or, as he calls them, “poetic myth objects.” Hinting at the impulses behind his own artistic practice, the mantras also read like gentle instructions from the artist to himself to hold fast to his particular path via repetition and a quirky material integrity. Each work, a marker of real time and action, is a story in its own right, recording a sense of contemporary conditions as well as fluidly delineating a past.

Meghan Dailey