Royal Paint in the Arse

The Malcolm Morley exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) dishes out a meaty chunk of the painter's career and hints at a knockabout journey that smacks of a Louis L'Amour yarn.

Featuring more than 30 large works dating from the Sixties, "Malcolm Morley: The Art of Painting" marks Morley's first U.S. museum survey since 1984. The twists and turns of the artist's formative years pepper his paintings — experiences he conveys with panache.

Born in England in 1931, Morley ran away from home at the age of fifteen and signed up as a ship's boy aboard the tugboat Salvonia. He was later clapped in the clink for snatching a purse and sentenced to a year in reform school. His second scrape with the law landed him in London's infamous Wormwood Scrubs prison for a two-year stretch, during which he discovered Van Gogh, took a correspondence course in drawing, and became consumed by swapping a life of delinquency for that of an artist.

Once released, he attended the Royal College of Art. He moved to New York in 1958 — the height of the Abstract Expressionism period, whose influence he showed himself hungry to crawl out from under. In 1984 Morley was the first recipient of the prestigious Turner Prize for British artists, twisting the adage that crime doesn't pay.

At the outset of his career he experimented with reproducing photo-based imagery within the framework of modern art. He later succeeded in collapsing the representational into the abstract, having discovered fertile territory to explore conceptually.

Based on a promotional reproduction of a photograph, SS Amsterdam in Front of Rotterdam (1966) is an early example of the hyperrealistic works that earned him attention. The giant luxury liner is depicted from an aerial view, knifing diagonally into the harbor. The vessel towers over a tugboat and ferry pictured in the lower right-hand corner of the composition; in the upper background, almost drowned by the ship's scale, is the city. The work mirrors his life-long flirtation with maritime themes.

In this piece and throughout the astonishing range of his later productions, the artist deploys a grid technique to transfer source imagery to the canvas. He breaks up the canvas into modular cells and often flips it upside down or sideways as he paints each section. He terms this technique "a more democratic way of constructing the image."

Coronation and Beach Scene is another sumptuous painting from the Sixties. Here the artist horizontally splits the picture plane with a shot of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in the upper half and affluent families enjoying a posh Brighton holiday in the lower panel.

The rich gold hues of the royal carriage, the crisp blues of the liveried coachmen, and the velvety reds of the uniformed soldiers lining the procession bleed across the opulent scene in the top panel and are reflected in the duplication of hues used in the seaside scene below, telegraphing Morley's sweet touch with the palette.

The delectable work — strewn with dozens of fabulous characters laid down in imperceptible brushstrokes, and boasting brilliantly ornate tonality — seems to thrum with energy while exuding a hedonistic vibe.

In the Seventies, the artist adopted a rougher approach to his paintings. He began muscling the canvas with brawnier, longer brushstrokes and laying on paint with a palette knife. He also began smearing on daubs of color straight from the paint tube.

During this period, Morley also shifted to three-dimensional objects as an image source. He would create still-life tableaux in his studio and work from the staged scenes. A fascination with childhood toys began popping up in these edgy pictures, which almost appear to be executed by another's hand.

An arresting example is Christmas Tree (The Lone Ranger Lost in the Jungle of Erotic Desire) (1979). The large-scale painting howls with intensity and is somewhat surreal and primitive in nature. A disjointed array of elements, dizzily altered in scale and strung up on what might be described as a towering Christmas tree, conveys the sense one is experiencing it from a toddler's perspective. Freighted with phallic symbolism and splattered in a lurid detonation of color, the iconography mines the murk of psychoanalysis and seems the stuff of a sexually awakening youngster's wet dreams.

From the upper edge of the canvas the bare stiletto-heeled legs of a trio of strumpets seem to float away from the picture plane as if ascending angels. Below them the Lone Ranger is caught brandishing a dildo at an Indian on the warpath, who's waving a tomahawk over his head. An engorged cobra hisses wildly at the masked cowpoke's steed. A derailed train sits near the bottom of the picture, and a tangle of prickly cacti dangles precariously from the bushy evergreen background. A weather-beaten pandemonium of parrots completes the crazy scene.

Throughout the Eighties, Morley engaged in an even wilder departure from his refined early style, often tipping his hat to modern masters while marinating the work in mythology. Several seem to be nods to Pollock's drippy action paintings, and one in particular looks like a candy factory blasted by a grenade.

Black Rainbow over Oedipus at Thebes (1988) depicts a tiny pair of loosely drawn figures in striped clothing in the lower right section of the work. Most of the composition consists of muddy mountain peaks reminiscent of pointy bullet bras or giant melting Hershey's Kisses. Thick ribbons of slapped-on paint suggest the titular rainbow. This work might be among the most hideous in the show and can produce the same reaction as an image of a cigarette being extinguished in an egg yolk. With this garish piece, Morley headlocks the spectator into considering whether a painting should be filtered perceptually through notions of taste or confronted on its own legs.

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.

Batter's Box features 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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Carlos Suarez De Jesus

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