Abelardo Morell

Bernard Toale Gallery

With this presentation of twenty-five gelatin-silver prints made between 1987 and 2003, Abelardo Morell celebrated a long romance with the history, science, and magic of photomechanical reproduction. The widely admired Cuban-born artist uses a large-format 4 x 5 camera and 8 x 10 negatives to produce elegant black-and-white photographs of books, maps, tabletop still lifes, and currency, as well as camera obscura works. Their wizardry lies in a marriage of skillful composition and conceptual rigor.

Some of Morell’s most striking photos are of books—rare or recent, damaged or untouched—in extreme close-up or in juxtaposition with one another. The photos exhibited here (which were reproduced in his recent monograph, A Book of Books) reveal new ways of looking at the printed page. Detail of Book Damaged by Water, 2001—the largest and most dramatic work in the exhibition—is a photo of a massive science textbook spoiled in a flood, its wavy pages telling a tale of the Boston Public Library’s wet basement. The waterlogged tome fills the frame with contortions reminiscent of da Vinci’s studies of deluges, as Morell transforms scientific information into sumptuous matter.

Morell is also a master of the camera obscura, and Lacock Abbey—where English scientist and linguist Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) invented modern photography—was Morell’s latest site for an experiment involving that technique. During a recent visit, he covered the doors and windows of one of its small ground-floor rooms with dark plastic, then installed a small circular opening and a diopter lens. He also set up his own camera in order to visually record the image once it emerged. The result was Camera Obscura Image of Courtyard Building, Lacock Abbey, England, 2003, a depiction in sharp detail of a sixteenth-century courtyard stable, its half-timbered gables projected in reverse onto the wall of a darkened chamber furnished only with two simple chairs. The view of the stable secured by Morell with his 4 x 5 over the course of an eight-hour open-shutter session is the same one Fox Talbot captured in 1840 for his first chemically developed calotype print. Combining modern technology and old-fashioned optics, Morell creates an engaging document that blurs past and present, inside and outside—a romantic work filled with an awe of scientific inquiry.

Despite the reverent attitude in many of his works, Morell is not above making sight gags about money. We’re treated to a twenty-dollar bill folded to resemble the Twin Towers, a single highlighting Washington’s all-seeing eye, and, in $60, 2002, the columns of the five-dollar bill’s Lincoln Memorial are stacked to create a kind of Tower of Pisa. In a canny juxtaposition of the jokey and contemplative, Mirror and Its Shadow, 2002, is included nearby. In its understated and immaculate image of a magnifying mirror standing on a table, light from outside the frame creates a shadow reflection on the wooden wall behind. Andy Grundberg once aptly described Morell as an artist who has “made a career of taking childlike ideas and rendering them in sophisticated reflexive fashion.” Morell’s talent also extends to his seemingly innocent, often deadpan treatment of loaded imagery that subtly hints at the workings and passions of a fertile mind.

Francine Koslow Miller