Royal Paint in the Arse

Artful scallywag ends up a great Briton

During the Nineties, Morley dragooned imagery of the balsa-wood model boats and airplanes he tinkered with as a child, creating a series of immense works that allude to growing up in the terrifying climate of World War II. Morley was thirteen when, during the London blitz, a German bomb demolished part of his home and destroyed a favorite model boat he says has inspired these paintings.

His recent paintings are the most dazzling and compelling in the show.

Marking a return to his superrealist work of the Sixties, these canvases dynamically depict athletes in action and tragic racecar crashes that almost place the viewer in the middle of the excitement.

The Death of Dale Earnhardt (2003): These are no 
bumper cars
The Death of Dale Earnhardt (2003): These are no bumper cars

Batter's Boxfeatures an overhead view of Sammy Sosa's race against Mark McGwire for baseball's home run record in 1998. The painting captures Sosa swinging at a smoking pitch and ready to explode the ball into the bleachers with salt from his wood. A catcher is seen with his mitt extended toward the plate on a glowing orange field where streaks of chalk demarcating the baseball diamond are rendered in shimmering bolts.

Backstroke, a crystal clear closeup of an Olympic swimmer aggressively splashing toward the finish line, pins the spectator to a poolside view.

Morley has openly expressed little interest in athletic pageantry. However, he rifles the subject matter to present sports heroes as part of a contemporary American mythology and as a wry poke at our infatuation with bread-and-circus games.

Perhaps the most stunning painting in the exhibit is Death of Dale Earnhardt, which dramatically depicts the demise of the legendary NASCAR champion. As Earnhardt's black Chevy spins out of control near the racetrack's shoulder, a yellow Pontiac plows into its side. The force of the collision crumples Earnhardt's car like a toy, as a bluish curdled-milk sheen engulfs both cars. Morley created the haze of fumes by applying paint to the canvas using balled wads of cellophane. The velocity of impact and sensation of burning oil almost make one choke and seem spellbinding in accuracy.

After experiencing 40 years of the artist's creative anxieties and dominance of his media, one leaves convinced that Morley, far from lying down, is a crafty old dog adept at devising new tricks.

And MoCA has scored another bull's-eye.

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