Los Angeles

Ree Morton/“for Ree”

Overduin and Kite/Marc Foxx

In the past five years, Los Angeles has become a privileged site for seeing and thinking about the amazing work of Ree Morton. This is due in no small part to a coterie of younger artists—including Evan Holloway and John Williams—who have channeled her wayward sculptural and installational innovations, and to the revisionary critical research and writing of Kristina Kite. It is both thrilling and fitting that Kite, who was a graduate student when she first undertook her research into the artist, and is now a gallerist, should have been in a position to present one of two great recent Morton shows.

The installation at Overduin and Kite of sculptures, paintings, and drawings from 1973 to1974, a crucial period for Morton, clarified how rapidly the artist’s thinking and making changed. Three drawings made in the summer of ’73 in Newfoundland, which Morton thought of as the happiest period of her life, use the vernacular of topographic mapping—different kinds of line, contour, and projection—to locate the various landmasses and waters of the imagination. There is no key to indicate scale or orientation, but similarly broken or dotted lines also appear, transformed, in other, larger works on view here.

In Untitled, 1973, for example, three floor-bound wood blocks lean into, as if to ballast, a large rectangular canvas fastened to the wall. Black crayon marks three sorts of paths or fields, dotted line closing into solid, echoing the blocks’ width and length. The paths are surrounded by green pencil-and-watercolor drops, and three watery stains mark the top of each block. In See-Saw, 1974, a dotted line of matchbox-size blocks of wood—painted white, sparkling with glitter, and intermittently scribbled with midnight blue—encircles a log, mostly painted red but also lightly glitter-encrusted. A plank is balanced by the log, and is secured by two plaques encoded with pictographs. An iron handle centers the plank on the log. Invoking some sort of prehistoric calendar by way of country-and-western witchery and the playground, the work both compels and refuses narrative.

At Marc Foxx, later Morton works, all using the artist’s much-loved Celastic (a plastic-impregnated fabric) in variegated hues, anchored recent works by five living artists influenced by her. Morton’s Regional Piece, 1976, twins similarly hued images of a moody sunset and a swimming fish, each appearing under bright blue–garlanded proscenia. Held between huge, carnival-lightbulbed parentheses, the names of friends, family, and students raised on individual plaques become emblems as well as mnemonic markers of those (often publicly unacknowledged) individuals who provide whatever is required (conversation, friendship, child care?) for an artist to make her work in Bozeman, Montana, 1974.

Like Lee Lozano, Morton used puns to engage the poetic at a time when Conceptual artists usually shunned such a possibility; she honed her writerly abilities under the influence of Raymond Roussel, who also sparked her most experimental thinking about installation and sculpture. Two of the new works included in the show fully take up the challenge of responding to Morton’s gift for the strange and haunting potential of language. Susan Philpsz’s sound work There is nothing left here, 2006, risks the mordancy of a folk song while italicizing vocal immateriality and evanescence. But Evan Holloway’s Carrionflower . . . , 2007 (the unabridged title of the work runs to a lengthy paragraph), is a clearer elaboration. Running vertically down the center of a comically heavy-duty framework, each letter of an alphabet, painted in black on white tuna cans, is loosely leashed to its corresponding double in an alphabet that arcs up to become the masthead of a ship. Holloway’s codex dreamboat here saluted Morton’s craft, trenchantly, enchantedly.

Bruce Hainley