New York

Malcolm Morley

“Jock art,” or art that incorporates sports imagery, is a much-maligned genre—right up there with paintings of wild animals and portraits of Elvis on velvet—but that only makes it ripe for recuperation. Many great moments in American art have taken us into the heat of competition; generally speaking, however, art that references the world of sports finds its niche at the dead center of mainstream culture, churned out by schlock mills, marketed in “starving artist” sales at airport motels, or, worse yet, sold in “theme art” galleries that specialize in ripping off their clientele with dubious merchandise and hard sell about “investment potential.” While young artists (many of them still in graduate school) have recently shown a renewed interest in such “discredited” cultural byproducts as muscle cars and motorbikes, there’s one old-timer who could still teach those pups some new tricks.

Malcolm Morley breaks all the rules of the game. He has earned an esteemed reputation as a “painter’s painter,” which is unsurprising given his ability to make paint itself the main focus of any canvas he produces, regardless of its ostensible subject matter. Yet therein lies the sticking point: Morley is drawn to the most unlikely of motifs. These have included an assortment of boats and airplanes and, in his new work, athletes and action-packed sporting events. Most of these pictures look as if they were taken from ESPN when, in fact, all derive from photographs. A swimmer battles past the finish line in record time; a hockey goalie deflects a flying puck; helmeted football players clash in a crushing tackle; a skier races at top speed downhill, his suit a zigzag blur. Morley savors heroic gestures and spectacular, climactic moments, both of which he depicts with unreserved bravura and such meticulous detail that his style deserves to be called hyperreal.

Morley’s virtuoso paint handling conveys a sense of liquid ease. It’s not unlike Chuck Close’s technique, wherein abstract and representational qualities emerge from each other. Morley’s best new paintings by far are the five in which he turns his mastery to large-scale tour de force disaster scenes rendered in blazing color. These include House in Brooklyn, 2003, which features a partially collapsed building spilling the domestic guts of eight apartments into the pit of an adjacent excavation site; Theory of Catastrophe, 2004, an aerial view of a freeway pileup of tractor-trailers and cars; and three monumental NASCAR wrecks The Art of Painting, 2005; Car Crash, 2003; and Death of Dale Earnhardt, 2003.

There aren’t any mutilated bodies or bloody corpses in these paintings; no murkiness slows the reception of their richly mesmerizing spectacles. Each calamity unfolds in the crystalline light of a beautiful day. Clouds of billowing smoke produce luminous atmospherics that refract soft, kaleidoscopic patterns of color. Mounds of mangled automobile wreckage are reminiscent of John Chamberlain’s sculptures wrought from polychromed metal car parts. Yet beauty among the ruins isn’t the canvases’ primary virtue, nor (thankfully) does metaphor appear to be a driving force. Unlike Warhol’s 1960s “Death and Disaster” paintings, which zero in on dead bodies to the exclusion of all other detail, Morley’s fundamentally optical paintings are crammed with visual information. No mere fixed gaze will do—these paintings demand constant retinal movement. They fully engage our ability to multitask, whether we’re reading the imagery (and mentally translating it back into newspaper headlines or sports-magazine stories), following the dissolution of the subject into luscious pools of pattern and paint, or doing both at the same time.

Jan Avgikos