Malcolm Morley in Full Colour
at the Hayward Gallery, London
It might seem apposite to reconsider the paintings of Malcolm Morley at this point in time; after all, a new generation appears to relish the prospect of using bad press photographs or other found images. Yet the experience of this Hayward retrospective is unlikely – apart, perhaps, from the classic photo-realist phase - to win over the youth of today. Not that it’s a bad exhibition. It is more the fact that the chameleon–like twists and turns of Morley’s career add up to a surprisingly ethical and old-fashioned confirmation of the discipline, rather than any overturning iconoclasm.
Taking the show as whole we move from his early abstractions, which might be dismissed as derivations of Twombly and Rauschenberg were it not for the peculiar and uncomfortable tension between an intricate, neurotic ‘handwriting’ and their overall more formal compositional constraints. It is a tension that unfurls throughout the exhibition: between almost mechanical restraint and explosive release. With the early paintings one is left with the feeling of immense effort and failure, as Morley himself must have felt at the time. Academicism haunts these pictures, which is why the next phase appears as a rather violent criticism of them. Morley’s solution was to foreground subject matter – represented here by gloomily painted warships in ink on canvas. An imitation of the quality of early magazine illustration is achieved by these images, which might also be linked to Richter’s and Polke’s attempts in a similar direction from the very early sixties.
It is, however, Morley’s adoption of the (then) contemporary glossy magazine photo – with its glorious but distorting full colour – that he realises more fully both the subject matter and the means to realise it. A painting such as SS Amsterdam, in front of Rotterdam (1966) displays the beauty of this mechanical approach – using a grid to realise the image which is turned upside down and painted as an ‘abstraction’. The serenity of the photo-realist phase is remarkably short-lived; and it is possible to sense the growing uneasiness with the constraints. After a few pieces, which allow the perfection of his method to be affirmed, it is increasingly, once again, the predominant feeling of the taught surface becoming ruptured, worried, with the drawing increasingly crude and naÔve that dominates. What follows is a wilful desecration of the previous paintings: Oil replaces Liquitex as a medium, making way for intense exercises in impasto such as Goodyear 1971 painted as though by a minor Fauve.
Morley during the 70’s produces a disjunctive, almost deconstructive figuration. It is painting as a site of disaster or catastrophe; it is here he is closest to Johns and Rauschenberg, but perhaps without their panache. His colour is distinctively ‘Royal’ blues and reds (distantly remembered from a coronation souvenir from childhood) which keeps it on the surface despite the rhetorical gestural approach. Expressionism, Adorno once suggested, is an approach that can only brilliantly burn itself out – it has little or no sustaining capacity because of the direct intensity of the experience it lays claim to. With Morley’s paintings from the early 80’s and later into that decade, ‘expressionism’ – even if in inverted commas - outstays its welcome. Despite some very interesting paintings form this phase from 1979 or 1981, it soon becomes a highly mannered and rather vulgar technique. Pollockesque splashes in paintings such as Seastroke or Night on the Bald Mountain from the late 1980’s appear simply an illustrational device, covering up the yawning emptiness of the images. It took quite a while for Morley to work through this, and the result by the late 90’s was a rather brittle Marine Painting style intimately linked to the model-making which has re-surfaced in his practice. Toys, models and staged war games have appeared throughout Morley’s output, and the recent paintings draw on images from postcards of antique World War 1 model kits. Again, this can be seen as, on one level, a volte-face from the expressionism of the 80’s, revisiting the extreme restraint of the Photo-realist paintings. Spad X111 (2000) or Albatros with Sopwirth Pup, 2001 both, almost by default, conjure up another world and culture: classic collage, vaudeville, and defunct ‘Boy’s Own’ culture. It is difficult to know where to go with such images; they certainly ask questions about the public value of private enthusiasms, which may or may not be bound up with either nostalgia or private psychology. Whether Morley has reduced his entire practice to the level of a hobbyist remains to be seen; how these images develop will reveal all.
Originally published in Artpress, Paris