“Malcolm Morley: Painting, Paper, Process” at the Parrish

You may not be surprised—seeing “Malcolm Morley: Painting, Paper, Process” at The Parrish Art Museum—to learn that British-born, 81-year-old Morley, who’s lived in Bellport for close to three decades and whom the Parrish chose as its temporary exhibition inaugural artist, had a difficult coming of age. When merely a child, his home was blown up during The Battle of Britain, that deadly but decisive WWII victory for the RAF in 1940 that must have both thrilled and terrified a nine-year-old. Add what must also have been troublesome post-war experiences, including reform school and three years in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in West London for theft, and you have, perhaps, an explanation for the edgy, pop-art, neo-expressionist mixed-media paintings, collages and sculpture that define a significant part of Morley’s artistic life.

Many of the 50 or so pieces on view at the Parrish focus on fighter planes in low and high relief—“attachments” he calls them—that fly into and out of colorful oil and encaustics on linen and paper. The two rooms in the Parrish’s temporary exhibition galleries also include the life-size, free-standing paper motorcycle sculpture, Ring of Fire (2009), and the in-the-round Lifeboat rectangular block, whose painted sides illustrate a shark-infested sequence. The disjunction between grim subject matter (particularly apparent in Floating [dead] Sailors from the late ’90s) and bold-color canvasses seems, in the aggregate, vintage Morley, though not necessarily intelligible Morley. Of course, admirers will say, that’s the point.

The inaugural exhibition also contains drawings and black-and-white encaustics on paper, the latest being Elsa Looks Left, part of a 2009–2010 series of dog sketches. It’s unfortunate that there are no pieces earlier than the 1980s, though had such work been included, it might have proved challenging especially for those who like to label art by period or approach. But, as chief curator at the Parrish (and of this show) Alicia G. Longwell points out, Morley has never been known for what could be called  “a signature style.” He himself has said, “As soon as something I do is accepted and successful, I have to change it.”

In the ’50s Morley studied at the Royal College of Art, and, after seeing Pollock and other abstract expressionists, pursued abstraction, then pop art and photo- or super-realism, influenced by Warhol and Lichtenstein. In 1984, to great controversy, Morley won the first Turner Prize, for a huge four-panel quasi-abstract oil Farewell to Crete (not on view here).

The hallway features several lithographs and monotypes depicting World War I model airplane kits (“three dimensional watercolors” Morley calls them), along with fanciful, Chagall-like watercolor scenes of Miami. It’s the west room’s huge Icarus (1993), however, that commands attention, especially when viewers are told that one of the two plane “attachments”—the one that’s nosediving into the canvas—is actually moving. Slowly, clockwise. In the adjoining room, the huge red circular Flight of Icarus (1995) also attracts notice. How these works fit together with, say, Washed Ashore (1987), a full-palette abstract of seaweed-like strokes of  beach detritus, is not readily apparent.

Morley is not a household name, so why did the Parrish select him for its inaugural exhibit? Longwell notes that the museum had been talking with the artist “for quite some time about an exhibition that looked at the myriad and inventive ways in which he has used paper in his art-making process, and this exhibition…is the culmination of that ongoing conversation….” In 1991, she adds, the museum “hosted a superb exhibition of his watercolors, organized by Tate Liverpool and we’ve been hankering ever since to have another show with this internationally known artist who just happens to live in our neighboring township. What better occasion than the opening of our new building.”

What might be inferred from his selection as inaugural artist is that the museum may be signaling a desire to be more of a Parrish Modern, dedicated to promoting an innovative, expanding, albeit provocative, vision of American art and culture than what has been guiding the Jobs Lane Parrish lo these 112 years. For those who miss missions past, however, William Merritt Chase and Fairfield Porter are right down the hall in dedicated rooms (and check out the Estaban Vincente exhibit!).

“Malcolm Morley: Painting, Paper, Process” will be on view through January 13, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Millwww.parrishart.org.

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