Sue Scott Gallery

Purest Energy: Malcolm Morley's Monotypes

Nancy Princenthal

For an artist long engaged in the contest between headlong spontaneity and rigorously systematic technique, and between fierce originality and exacting reproduction, monotypes would seem a natural choice. It is a surprise, then, that those Malcolm Morley has produced with One Eye Pug Press are his first. Incandescent and unruly, they return to some favorite subjects, including planes, boats and sun-scorched beaches.  And as in previous work, internal conflict is the prevailing compositional and metaphorical paradigm. Over the course of a long career marked by hairpin turns in stylistic direction and by a decidedly obstreperous relationship with his own success, Morley (who was born in Britain in 1931) has defied every norm for painting, mixing processes with abandon and, in recent years, blurring distinctions between the pictorial and the sculptural. Monotypes, which are always a hybrid of unique and editioned artwork, have proven an exceptionally productive new form.

Typical in its cheerful mayhem, Abandon Ship (2008) features three World War II fighter planes: two Spitfires ascending and a Messerschmitt going down, heading right for the deck of a trawler. The boat sinks to the bottom of the image, its rising bow echoing the diagonal line of a madly tilting horizon, down which a distant freighter slides in perfect serenity. In the foreground, gruesome injury and likely death are introduced as minor details: a tiny sailor gaily waves a Red Cross flag from a lifeboat, where a prostrate figure and a few splotches of red signal grave trouble; another little man hangs onto a spar on for dear life, his mouth open in a desperate cry. The trio of warplanes dances around an odd, vaguely fire-hydrant-like red form at the composition’s center: it is the dome of St. Peter’s, and stands, Morley says1, for the Papacy, in particular Pius XII’s egregious failure to save innocent civilians during the war. Again, the reference is grim. But Abandon Ship’s colors are bright, the sky a cloudless blue, the draftsmanship crisp and lively.  Ring-shaped lifesavers float sweetly in the water, like big striped candies.  They are mirrored by two Royal Air Force roundels that seem to have floated off a Spitfire’s wings and lodged in the print’s upper right corner, where they evoke two goggled eyes, peering out curiously, at us.

Abandon Ship was printed by Maurice Sanchez of Derrière L’Etoile Studios, with whom Morley has worked for 25 years. Sanchez was able to pull nearly a dozen ghosts of this image, with arresting changes of tone and even color from one to the next. Sanchez likes to say that “if making a print is like making a movie—you do it in parts, and assemble it, and there is a great deal of editing—making a monoprint is like improvisational theater: you live and die on the spot.”2 Nonetheless, work on the project proceeded methodically, with Morley painting on the block (Sanchez does not use a matrix) with reference to a gridded original, just as he had transferred images square by painstakingly painted square when he was reproducing tourist brochures and postcards early in his career. Morley contends that he doesn’t mind taking intellectual risks, but doesn’t like technical ones. These monotypes demonstrate both inclinations.

The emotionally discordant playfulness of the wartime images results, in part, from their basis in model airplanes and boats, which Morley assembled as a child—one that was particularly dear to him, of the battleship HMS Nelson, was lost, momentously, when his boyhood home in London was bombed during the Blitz. (He continues not only to use these models as subjects, but also to build them—at bigger scale than the versions sold as toys, and using archival paper that he paints with watercolors.) The subject is reprised in Airplane Pile-Up (2009), which shows four airplanes, at least one of them upside down, smashing into each other with what Morley calls “the innocence of a child randomly piling up toys.” Similarly, the achingly bright yellow sky seems to have been chosen by a child with a brand new crayon; the flat, schematic depictions, bright and bold, also suggest a graphic innocence. Salvonia (2007) depicts the tugboat of that name on which Morley shipped off as a galley boy at the age of 14; he recalled that the bosun, “a big red-haired Canadian,” warned at one point that the porpoises leaping around the boat heralded a dangerous gale, and indeed eighty foot waves ensued.  Morley welcomed a viewer’s association of the leaping dark strokes in this print’s foreground with the storm-signaling porpoises, but the terror of the recollection is belied by the print, which features a rather stolid tug being slammed right and left by three smaller boats, to no visible effect on the object of their assault.

If there is a great deal of festivity in the scenes of crashing planes and sinking ships, there is often a vague, lurking menace in the mostly frolicsome beach scenes. The balconied seaside promontory seen from above in Tropic of Gemini  (2007) is strewn with languorous sunbathers. Although wild shifts of scale cause, for instance, one bather lying on a blanket to seem to be the huge, cast shadow of a diminutive figure standing at his head, the print as a whole is richly harmonious. Morley notes the influence of Picasso in this image; Matisse can be felt, too, in the Mediterranean light and the swift, sure contours. But entirely Morley’s own is a palm tree that stands at the print’s dead center, its leaves an inky, greenish black that is practically iridescent; the fronds of another pitchy tree sprawl at the right. It is one of his bits of pictorial magic to heighten the sun’s glare with these moments of pure darkness. They recur as defining shadows in Holiday Beach with Beach Ball (2008), a boisterous image teeming with beachgoers and their striped umbrellas. The painting from which this print derives features a three-dimensional beach ball that is attached to the corner of the canvas; in the print, the brightly striped ball is haloed in sunny white, which makes it seem to float away from the surface, buoyant and huge.

The wonderful Rushing to Miami (2006) sets two images in collision, a jaunty passenger boat at the bottom left running head-on into an expanse of azure ocean at bottom right.  It takes a moment to notice the disjunction (the water’s horizon should continue behind the boat, but doesn’t) because of all the other activity in the image. Person-shaped kites bob high overhead, like airborne swimmers, and a cascade of multihued brush-marks tumble down the sides: color tests, deliberately retained.  Morley says they are like scribbled calculations in the margins of a mathematician’s worksheet.

Several monotypes feature idiosyncratic subjects. Gertrude and Friends (2007) is a warmly humorous portrait of the poet as a lascivious pink fish, her mouth open like a diva mid-song. Her companions are a gorgeous but more placid cohort of tropical fish, swimming in a deep green sea; irregularities in the ink create little plumes of rising bubbles. (This image, like several others, was printed by Kathy Caraccio, who expertly exploited unexpected outcomes, like the wrinkling of the gummed Mylar matrix as it was put through the press.) Playboys (2008) features a quartet of blowsy red blossoms, faded but softly seductive. In Red Shoes with Palette (2007), Morley presents a pair of bright red sneakers, set on the grass next to a rudimentary metal watercolor box. The connection to childhood things is doubled here; this image is a response to an exercise the artist led for students at his local Boys and Girls Club. Other triumphs of concision are to be found among the woodcuts Morley has been printing in his own studio, including Elsa With Ball and Border (2009), an irresistibly affectionate image that features his black and white Border Collie along with her yellow tennis ball. At the other end of the emotional spectrum is a monotype called Lifeboat (2008). The boat at its center is small and indistinct.  Surrounding it, edge-to-edge across the print, is a fathomless sea of subtly varied, slightly grayed blues and greens—the ocean as it would look on an overcast day. The composition is unyieldingly simple; the isolation of the boat, and its distance from shore, appear absolute and infinite.

When Morley came to the gallery to talk about these prints, he had a copy of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance in his coat pocket. In the book’s celebrated conclusion, Pater warns that even the sharpest impression made by “importunate reality” is readily reduced by our perceptive and analytic faculties to a “tremulous wisp.”  The vital question is of how we can proceed most quickly from point to experiential point, “and be present always at the focus where the great number of vital forces unite in their purest energy.”3 Habit, Pater pronounces, signals failure; receptivity to novel realities is all. Morley’s copy of Pater’s book was dog-eared. He says he holds it in high regard.


1All quotes of Morley from a conversation with the author, Dec. 1, 2011.
2 Conversation with the author, Dec. 5, 2011.
3Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (New York, Modern Library, pp. 195-97, accessed on Google Books, December 2011).

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