JIM MORPHESIS “Wounds of Existence”: Art Review

The word “baroque” kept returning to my mind as I walked through the exhibition “Jim Morphesis: Wounds of Existence” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. In part, it’s the sheer, intense, sometimes massively over-the-top materiality of many of these “paintings,” with their surfaces of nailed broken planks that might have been rescued from a demolition site, or the ooze of concrete and magna (acrylic resin paint), the sparkle and gold and glitter. In part, it’s the purposefully broken quality of composition, line and texture. In part the physically explicit passion for the fleshy human body, both male and female…

 Female Torso with Green Doors, 1989 Oil, acrylic, gouache, charcoal, and collage on wood panel  with wooden doors, 71 x 83 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA; Gift of John and Phyllis Kleinberg

Female Torso with Green Doors, 1989 Oil, acrylic, gouache, charcoal, and collage on wood panel
with wooden doors, 71 x 83 inches
Collection Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA; Gift of John and Phyllis Kleinberg

… in part the obsession with entropy and death; in part the emotional energy that reaches out from the surface of these artworks and grabs the viewer with its peculiar intensity.

Morphesis has been exploring such things for a good number of years now, and it’s good to see that dedication rewarded with a solo museum exhibition. (My only wish is that it could have been a more extensive one than this…)  Even at a time when it ran counter to the mainstream, his art was unafraid to take up the challenge of those issues that confront us simply at the level of our existence as mortal human beings: such things as pain and vulnerability, love and sex, the metaphysical struggle between belief and disbelief, religion and existential doubt; and, eventually, between the light side of our nature and the dark. If we can bring ourselves to gaze with sufficient attention into its disquieting depths (and this is sometimes, truthfully, no easy task) his work is powerful enough to overcome any reserve we might bring to it. The artist’s process requires him to look fearlessly within; it invites us to look with equal fearlessness into our own inner lives.

Emotional intensity aside, Morphesis is an artist who pays serious attention to the work of those who preceded him, and who grounds himself firmly in the authority of tradition. In the series of crucifixion paintings in which he addresses his childhood associations with the Greek Orthodox church, for example, he evokes the images of Matthias Grünewald and Velasquez

Jim Morphesis, No Sanctuary, 1981. Oil, acrylic, wood, nails, wire, tape, and gold leaf on wood panel, 26 1/2 x 29 inches, Collection of Ray Mnich.

Jim Morphesis, No Sanctuary, 1981. Oil, acrylic, wood, nails, wire, tape, and gold leaf on wood panel, 26 1/2 x 29 inches, Collection of Ray Mnich.

The raw impasto of his wounded, sometimes tortured naked human figures recalls the disturbing paintings of Chaim Soutine. He mines the deep well of archetypal images from the history of art and poetry—the rose, the skull…

 Skull and Red Door, 1987, oil, magna, enamel, charcoal, paper, wood, and gold leaf on wood panel with wooden door 83 x 76 1/4 inches Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Gift of Jacob and Ruth Bloom

Skull and Red Door, 1987, oil, magna, enamel, charcoal, paper, wood, and gold leaf on wood panel with wooden door 83 x 76 1/4 inches
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Gift of Jacob and Ruth Bloom

… and of motifs and themes—memento mori, the pietà

Jim Morphesis, Destiny, 1982. Oil, magna, alkyd resin, and wood on wood panel, 68 x 64 inches. Collection of Laifun Chung and Ted Kotcheff

Jim Morphesis, Destiny, 1982. Oil, magna, alkyd resin, and wood on wood panel, 68 x 64 inches. Collection of Laifun Chung and Ted Kotcheff

… that have for centuries resonated in the human consciousness, creating a powerful subtext of cultural reference that enriches these paintings with echoes from the past.  Similarly, the written words and texts that lie half-buried in their surfaces bear witness to the artist’s restless inquiry into the ageless philosophical questions they address.

The seriousness and profundity of this inquiry is what sets Morphesis’s work apart from that of many of his contemporaries.  In a culture that often seems content to skirt the surface of those things that affect our inner lives, I find his work to be not only emotionally provocative and intellectually engaging, but also remarkably courageous.

 

 

NIGHT WILL FALL: Film Review

I have been wanting to write about Night Will Fall, aired last week on HBO.  It’s a documentary about a documentary.  The original, produced by  Sidney Bernstein for the British Psychological Warfare Division in 1945, had the working title, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey—a purposefully non-dramatic title.  It was never finished or released, for what might seem to be largely cynical political reasons.  It was based on a compilation of footage shot by mostly British and American soldiers present at the liberation of several of the Nazi death camps.  It was made because military officials were convinced that the world would not be able to believe what happened in these places unless they saw it with their own eyes—and in prophetic anticipation of later deniers.  It was the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, who was brought in to assist in the direction, that called for the kind of long, unbroken panning shots—some with recognizable officials and trusted figures—that would be impossible to accuse of exaggeration or fakery.

Much of the footage is familiar: the haggard faces and the skeletal bodies of survivors, the piles of naked bodies stacked up like cord wood, the long trenches filled with the remains of the thousands who died, the camp guards, male and female, and the SS officers and men forced to engage in the disposal of the corpses of their mass murder victims, the German civilians from neighboring towns lined up by Allied forces and required to witness what had been perpetrated in their name.  We have seen these images, and each time we see them we are repulsed by the barbarity of the Nazis—and are called upon to reflect upon that sad but unavoidable old phrase, “man’s inhumanity to man.”

What is new—and, to me, surprising—in the original footage are the follow-up scenes, taken two or three weeks later, which show the remarkable resilience of human beings who had lived through hell, had suffered from rampaging typhus and other camp illnesses, and had nearly starved to death.  The scenes show women sorting through clothes and trying them on (“as women like to do” the commentary noted!  Not something any documentarian would dare to say today!)  They show survivor couples strolling down tree-lined country roads with every appearance of good health and cheer.  The reality, of course, went far deeper than this, after so terrible a trauma.  But still, it was a refreshing addition to the visual record.  Liberation, which to so many had become an impossible mirage, had in fact arrived.

Andre Singer’s “Night Will Fall” does not attempt a reconstruction of the original film, but it does include an extensive amount of the footage—mostly in black and white but some, from American photographers, in the newly available medium of color.  Singer uses the perspective of a number now-aging survivors, their liberators and responsible officials of the time to describe the experience of that moment in history at first hand; to explain both the purpose of the original film and the reasons for its non-release (some believed at the time that it would have a negative impact on the “de-Nazification” process then in hand); and to detail its subsequent history, most notably its effective use in the war crimes trials at Nuremberg.

Singer’s documentary is a heart- and gut-wrenching reminder of that thing that we must “never forget.”  It is timely, coming at a moment in history where we will soon no longer have either the last of the survivors or their rescuers to bear witness, and will need to rely more heavily on documents such as this.  It is thorough and clear in its purpose to carry out the intention of the original, to create the kind of record that would withstand every attempt to deny or minimize this most appalling and sickening event in human history.  Because of its historical, and sometimes perversely political perspective, it should be a part of every 20th century history class.

There is one proviso—one I confess would not have occurred to me until I read this excellent review by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “Auschwitz Was About the Jews” and realized there was justice to his complaint: that the words Jew and Jewish were almost entirely absent from the film and that, as his title suggests, Auschwitz wasabout the Jews.  There were other victims, who should not be forgotten.  There were gays and communists, there were gypsies and (as one commenter points out in the lively and fascinating discussion that follows the Rabbi’s review) Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There were people of all faiths who dared to oppose the Nazi regime.  But to make such a film with no mention of the Jews as the primary targets of Nazi hatred and brutality is to do a disservice to the truth.

 

That said, this is an important, compelling, often enraging, and immensely saddening documentary.  Each one of us owes it to himself or herself to know about these things, and there is no better way of knowing than to watch it.

ROLAND REISS: Art Review

A good half-century after it started, Roland Reiss’s career continues to surprise and delight in a new exhibition at Diane Rosenstein gallery. The last time I caught up with this artist’s work, a couple of years ago, he was already painting, um… flowers—a bold, provocative gesture, fraught with professional risk in a culture in which the mainstream could reliably be expected to sneer at such an enterprise. The paintings were beautiful, studied, quite formal in presentation—and the last thing I would have expected from a contemporary artist at the peak of an already distinguished career.

To judge by his current exhibition, “Floral Paintings and Miniatures,” Reiss has been working hard to extend the boundaries he himself had begun to establish in those early floral paintings. These new, large-scale works are painted with the same meticulous attention to detail and the same exemplary skill. Formally, they create the illusion of symmetry without being exactly symmetrical…

Sunflowers After Dark, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 x 52 inches (all images courtesy of the artist and Diane Rosenstein)

Sunflowers After Dark, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 x 52 inches
(all images courtesy of the artist and Diane Rosenstein)

Formally, too, they work as exhaustive exercises in the delicate art of color composition. Lilies, sunflowers, birds-of-paradise, roses, these floral images float against flat, monochrome backgrounds enhanced with cut-outs and stencils that contrast their natural beauty, with quiet irony, with cultural icons of the contemporary world: the silhouettes of cityscapes, for example, or images that seem to reference the familiar excesses of the art market. In a nod to Manet—and perhaps, to this viewer, to the meditative serenity of Buddhist practice—one quartet of paintings depicts the lovely form of lotus blossoms and the outline of lily pads, seen directly from above; and beneath, or perhaps more accurately behind them, as though in the water of a pond, lurk the barely discernable forms of variegated koi fish.

Lilies in Blue, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 44 x 44 inches

Lilies in Blue, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 44 x 44 inches

As I perused the surface of these paintings, I was struck quite unexpectedly by their aesthetic continuity with the other components of this exhibition: a handful of the exquisitely constructed miniature dioramas that brought the artist considerable renown some decades earlier.

F/X: In Search of Truth, 1990, mixed media, 14 x 24 x 24 inches

F/X: In Search of Truth, 1990, mixed media, 14 x 24 x 24 inches

Wrought with the same passionate dedication to detail and the same exacting craftsmanship, these three-dimensional mini-dramas required (and continue to require, in the examples included here) the same kind of exploratory looking: the two-dimensional surface of the paintings offers the same kind of visual complexity and invites the same kind of pleasurable detective work as the dioramas. The viewer’s eye and mind are drawn into an act of (act-ive) contemplation, moving through surfaces and between objects in a constant voyage of discovery.

When I used, above, the word “delight,” I intended it as an accurate description of the actual physical sensation that this artist’s work arouses. As viewers, we feel constantly invited in, in a way that makes the work, beyond its intellectual engagement, a rare experience of sheer, genuine pleasure.  If the paintings glow with their own peculiar serenity, we find ourselves irresistibly glowing with them. In today’s troubled world, such a gift is not to be taken lightly.

A MYSTERY SOLVED? Art Review

Amelia Earhart buffs might be surprised to learn that the remains of her aircraft, widely reported to have gone down off Howland Island in the South Pacific, made it all the way across the Pacific Ocean to the Santa Monica Bay, where it was only recently rediscovered and successfully raised from the ocean floor by the artist Dan Van Clapp.  His evidence is currently on improbable display at Future Studio Gallery in Highland Park.

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All images courtesy of Future Studio Gallery

Seriously, you’ll be astonished by the verisimilitude of the artist’s recreation, not only of the cockpit and a large part of the fuselage of the Lockheed Electra 10 E that Earhart was flying on the final, fateful leg of her global circumnavigation attempt, but also various severed pieces of the plane and other memorabilia–headset, helmet…

 

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… a sodden logbook, and so on.  It’s a tour de force of deceptive ingenuity and legerdemain.  You’d swear the tire is made of actual decomposing rubber…

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… the fuselage and the visible remaining engine parts of metal.  No.  It’s all illusion, crafted with enough skill to fool both eye and mind.  You go up really, really close and you still can’t tell that this torn metal fragment is actually a piece of paper.

Von Clapp’s installation intrigues the viewer at a variety of levels.  The artist teases us optically, of course, but also challenges the obsession with mystery and celebrity that drives the unending search for Earhart’s plane.  He plays with questions of historical truth and our perception of reality, the way we view, and reconstruct our history, and bestow mythic stature on our heroes.  In the absurdist tradition, he seamlessly blends tragedy and sly humor; we can’t help but smile at his trickery. His meticulous reconstruction is also an act of love, an homage to the woman whose feisty and indomitable courage is a reminder that the spirit of adventure and the embrace of danger are not the exclusive territory of men.

It’s a remarkable achievement, and one that merits the trek to a less-than-familiar part of town.  We art folk tend to travel familiar paths, and too often miss what calls out to be seen.  We tend to look for the familiar names, and tend to pass over the ones that are less familiar or unknown to us.  Too bad.  We’re the losers for it.

Meantime, kudos to Dan Van Clapp for a show that shouldn’t be missed.  I’m only surprised that he didn’t create the famous aviator’s earthly remains.  But perhaps that’s something best left to the imagination.

WOUNDED LEADERS: Book Review

Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion, by Nick Duffell.

 

First, don’t assume from this book’s subtitle that is irrelevant to us here in America, or to our leadership.  It is of vital relevance, no matter the specificity of his argot.  Nick Duffell’s title will have resonance for anyone who has lived through the past couple of decades in America and watched our own wounded leaders in action–or, more correctly, inaction.  That said–and we’ll come back to this–his central argument is that the boarding-school educated governing elite in Britain are themselves unconsciously governed by the lasting wounds incurred by the experience of being sent away from the family at an early age, and placed in a militaristic environment in which they learn to protect themselves from a hostile outer world.

 

I can speak to this.  I am what Duffell aptly refers to as a Boarding School Survivor.  As a practicing psychotherapist, he has a long-standing practice designed to bring such people back from their emotional disorientation and isolation.  I could have used his services, long ago, but had to discover my own path through this maze.  I was sent away to school at the age of seven, and by the time I escaped to freedom at the age of eighteen, I had received a remarkable head-oriented education but remained what I often describe as an emotional cripple.  I had learned the costly and dangerous art of evasion and emotional invulnerability. As a seven- or eight-year old, I could not afford to do anything but suppress the feelings that would open me up to attack from my fellow-boarders: fear, anger, sadness, grief, the terrible pain of being separated from parents who assured me that they loved me—even though it was hard to understand the paradox of being loved and yet exiled from the family, the locus of that love.

 

The result of my excellent education was that I never grew up.  Rather, it took me another three decades before I realized there was something wrong with living like a turtle in a shell.  Boarding School Survivors, as Duffell describes them, are stunted individuals so caught up in their heads that they remain disconnected from their hearts.  I simplify his profoundly well-informed and subtle arguments, whose bottom line is that Britain’s ruling elite, boarding-school and Oxbridge-educated, are supremely unqualified to lead in our twenty-first century world because they get so intently focused on their distorted, rational vision of national and global issues that they remain impervious (invulnerable) to the bigger picture of human needs.  They are unable to listen, to empathize with others than themselves and their own kind.  They are guided by the certainty of their own sense of rectitude.  To doubt, to question, to have a change of heart is to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is the last thing in the world they can allow themselves.  (Duffell’s final chapter, on doubt, is particularly eloquent and on-target.)

 

I am admittedly unqualified to evaluate the more technical aspects of Duffell’s argument.  To this reader, he seems impressively knowledgeable and up-to-date with the latest discoveries of neuroscience and academic psychology.  He draws on a broad understanding of the philosophical development of rationalism and its critics, the countervailing social movements of repression and rebellion, and contextualizes his argument in that historical perspective.  In our contemporary times, his exemplars are primarily the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, England’s current Prime Minister David Cameron, and London Mayor Boris Johnson, whose attitudes and actions are profoundly—and in Duffell’s view—mistakenly reactionary.  As he sees it, they bully and bluster their way past opposition into futile military actions and social programs that enrich the already privileged and wealthy and contribute to the continuing impoverishment of the needy.  No wonder the England he describes is an angry country.

 

Late in the book, Duffell expands his vision of an entitled elite to include brief reference to American leaders—in particular, of course, George W. Bush, whose blind and reckless pursuit of a delusory obsession rushed us headlong into the war with Iraq.  The disastrous results are with us today, in the form of a Middle East in unending turmoil.  Looking at America today—a nation of people surely as angry as the British—I’d argue that what Duffell calls the Entitlement Illusion is by no means limited to British elitism.  Our leaders must also be counted amongst the wounded.  Our leadership is dominated by the squabbling of little boys who have never grown beyond the need to protect themselves and their own territory from those who do not agree with them.  Our political problems are the same as those Duffell describes in his country: militarism, misguided and prejudicial rationalism, a lack of empathy for the poor and underprivileged, an assumption of rectitude that rejects other views without a hearing, an angry rejection of doubt or reappraisal of previously held views.

 

Entitlement, I’d argue, is not the exclusive property of the British elite.  I myself believe it’s also, more broadly, a factor of historical male privilege, the patriarchal tradition.  There is a persistent myth in our culture that sees men as rational beings, in control of events, capable, practical, while women are (still, in the eyes of too many of us men) perceived as irrational, guided by emotion rather than reason, and therefore less competent in leadership positions.  Duffell argues passionately for a middle path, one that minimizes neither reason nor emotion, but balances the intelligence quotient with the emotional quotient, the head with the heart, reason with compassion and empathy.  I agree with him, that unless we as a species can find that balance, we are in for dangerous times ahead.  His book is a timely and important reminder of the need to “change our minds” in a fundamental way, and open ourselves to the powerful–and practical–wisdom of the heart.  I sincerely hope that the book will find readers beyond the native country of which he writes.  Its insights are profoundly needed everywhere, throughout the globe.