An Uneasy Truce
by Karl F. Volkmar, THE NEW ORLEANS ART REVIEW
ELEMORE MORGAN, JR.
The Arthur Roger Gallery
New Orleans, LA
The new landscape paintings by Elemore Morgan, Jr., hung quietly on the brightly lit white walls of the gallery on opening night. When I arrived, the art people crowd were milling about, moving randomly within the gallery space with no apparent sense of purpose except for being there that night. Individuals stood alone, looking around curiously, or pausing to look at a painting and read the information card. Small groups of two or three or four gathered momentarily to talk and listen only to disperse as individuals or reform in new clusters. Perhaps this perception was merely my personal reading from knowing that the artist would not be there for his opening, but the landscapes and the people seemed like strangers passing each other on a crowded rush hour sidewalk in New York City, noticing each other just enough to avoid contact, never pausing long enough to get to know anything but the superficial.
I have always experienced a sense of irresolution when looking at Morgan’s landscapes, as if they and I existed in subtly incongruent worlds. As if we were in a supersaturated solution in which the catalyzing seed crystal never works its magic. The result is a disquieting uneasiness, never feeling able to fully comprehend the artist’s landscapes. Oh, I could put on my analytic art historian’s hat and point out apparent similarities between Morgan’s paintings and an endless array of art historical chestnuts. But this purely intellectual exercise has not yet yielded any satisfying explanation for this feeling of irresolution. Could it be that this irresolution and the restlessness of the opening evening crowd were appropriate responses to Morgan’s landscapes? That Elemore Morgan’s paintings were an expression of the artist’s own restlessness?
Having lived virtually his entire life in southern Louisiana, Morgan had recently gone on a walkabout beyond his beloved Acadiana in search of motifs, first to New Orleans and, more recently, to New York City. View of Manhattan finds us standing with the artist on a grassy bank, framed by a bushy tree at the left and peering out from under the branches of an unseen tree above our heads. It is not the city itself seen from within with all its dynamic vitality but rather a city observed from a distance that is both physical and psychological.
We are looking across the East River, over the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, at the middle highrise Manhattan. The chalky blue-green water mimics a sky smudged here and there with reddish purple clouds that rise like exhalations from the buildings below. It is a light, refreshing scene world with no visible sign of living human presence as if everyone has gone away. And in that there is a hint of sadness.
The use of foreground landscape elements to frame more distant views is a convention in western painting that can also serve as a means to contrast attributes associated with the ideas nature and culture and make philosophical statements. Add to this stew water as symbol of separation and transformation and we have multiple possibilities for interpreting this painting. Morgan is a well-educated, well-read cultural omnivore and it would not be unreasonable to explain his works in this way. The important question would be why. The answer would be that the artist found a sympathetic expression of his deepest feelings in nature that was expressed in the art of landscape painting.
Distance and scale separate us from the city in Manhattan from Liberty State Park. In reproduction this sliver of a view easily fits within our angle of seeing but this five-paneled painting is a large, very long piece, almost two feet high by thirty-four feet long, a vast panorama of Manhattan viewed from the distance of Liberty Park. The buildings rise above the horizon in the distance like a difficult to realize dream, an Oz, a not so heavenly Jerusalem. This is a view of this fabled city that new immigrants saw as they gazed at their future home over a century and more ago.
It is as if we are looking though the half-open eyes of meditation. The attenuated proportions are those more typically seen in traditional Chinese landscape scroll paintings, and then only when unrolled. But here we are looking into the distance rather than traveling across the surface. The light yellow-green foreground and purplish red buildings silhouetted against a pale blue sky are the simple harmony of a triadic chord. The buildups cluster together along the horizon like a row made of children’s blocks. The unusual shape of an elongated canoe turned upside down represents one of the artist’s self-imposed problems as he continually sought to challenge himself.
It’s difficult to imagine where this painting might hang. What an oddly shaped room it must be! How this shape would appropriate the surface and the space, commanding what would fit and what would not, defeating any designer’s effort to impose her or his ideas. An assertion of the artist’s will after challenging himself and meeting the challenge, his success becoming a challenge for someone else. An interesting conundrum is resolved by the artist: the shape qua shape, the demands of representation, and the problems of color and application. The rococo delicacy of porcelain pastels is conflated with the objectivity of minimalist hardedge painting.
Why did Morgan choose to paint this legendary city from a distance, so far away in Manhattan from Liberty State Park, or seen from across the East River, looking west, over the water, in Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge? In the early twentieth century we were presented with the energetic paintings of John Marin and Joseph Stella and the solemn architecture of Georgia O’Keefe’s early Manhattan projects. Morgan the artist has been drawn to what was one of the iconic cities of the world in the early twentieth century. But now, in the early years of the twenty-first-century, other cities in other countries are the dynamic growth centers of the world.
Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge is composed of the juxtaposition of two views seen from the same vantage point. Unity lies not in the continuity as we move from one panel to another. Each view represents a vector view from the center that is the artist’s mind. The left panel is the skyscrapered skyline of southern Manhattan with a bit of one end of the bridge at the right. The right panel presents a view of the bridge itself from tower to tower. A triangle of gable at the lower right ties us to the ground. The de-saturated, multi-colored buildings and bridge are as delicately colored as pastel paintings on fine porcelain. Here too as in all of Morgan’s work there is no living human presence. Only the evidence that there must have been. Why?
Could it be that Morgan is essentially a non-representational modernist who finds in landscape an excuse for exercising his formal concepts? Is the artist a covert minimalist experimenting with shaped surfaces? Are the shapes suggested by the contours of the land as in Irregular Sky? Capriciously determined, or inspired by the artist’s experience in the landscape? Brushwork is played off against the edges, shapes and strokes cropped by the frame. De Kooning did something like this. Morgan’s paintings seem to have an independent quality that is distinct, neither determined by the need to fit within someone else’s design nor to present a recognizable relationship to the land. Might the artist’s apparent interest in abstract, formal, and material qualities in some way related to the lack of living human presence and his need for a late life walk-about?
For most of us the quintessential Morgan is represented by his landscape paintings of the southwestern Louisiana prairies like Early Field and Gladu Road. The basic scheme of yellow, yellow-green, and green fields and border growth beneath blue skies streaked with ruddy clouds, sometimes accented with ponds of blue, blue-green water is adapted according to the season. In these latest landscapes, however, the grand archetypal image of the live oak survives only in miniature (Irregular Sky). The motif of the barn has been placed further back in the middle ground as if observer or observed is moving away. The middle passage with tractor in place allows us to see through the opaque form as an interruption in the continuity of space.
We can only gaze across the yellow plain of Early Field. The green foreground bars physical entry in the wav that the edge of a drop-off separates viewer and subject in medieval icons. The wet fresh green of spring announces that the growing cycle is renewing itself. Long shadows from the hidden tree row at the left suggest that it is an early morning light. The merest suggestion of new green growth emerging from the earth is just beginning to transform the ochre soil into what will become summer lushness.
In Gladu Road it is as if we had turned to look back over our shoulders at where we have come from rather than where we are going. Orthogonal lines move quickly towards a vanishing point that lies just beyond the right hand side (an idea Munch used for the bridge in his The Scream). A rose blue sky is reflected in the pond and mirrored in the road. A softly warm light suffuses the surface. Faintly seen tire tracks disappear into the clayey surface of the road. The sun hovers on the horizon before it descends into another time zone. All is quiet here. There is no scream as evening passes into night.
The geometric regularity of barn and field in Early Barn contrasts with the fluidity of surrounding nature, the greens of the fields and the drifting clouds in the bright blue sky, the humid softness of the light like an ancient stele immersed in the flow of time. What might have been a quiet bucolic scene in the work of another artist becomes charged with quiet energy with the conjuring brush of Morgan. The simple shape of the barn is compressed within a tightly constricted space along the sides and ground. The angular gable as it continues the upward movement initiated by the mowed trapezoidal lane is countered by the curve of the arching edge. The niche-like shape evokes in the art historically inclined memories of the calendar pages from Les Tres Riches Heures with their syntheses of the celestial and terrestrial realms.
For an artist with Morgan’s education and experience this would be entirely possible, if not directly, then a similar response to a similar situational concept whose form is determined by contemporary cultural values. It would be wonderfully romantic to think of the landscape artist as a product of his environment like the cane that grows in the fields and live oaks that have survived and thrived in this hurricane scoured land. But this would be a reversion to an ancient way of thinking in which the artist is but the medium the muses’ inspiration, nature a [rather than like a] living breathing organism in a pantheistic world animated by infinite forces, and would deny the artist his due. Nature is reality and we are part of it. Subject to its laws to which we must adapt if we are to survive as the artist and his Cajun ancestors have done. But nature cares not one whit whether we humans do or do not survive. Nature does not care. Humans do. And we write our joys and concerns on the blank slate that is nature. Morgan’s landscapes are the expression of the artist’s struggle to negotiate an uneasy truce between the representational, the formal, and the technical on the blank slate of his art. The uneasiness of this truce, experienced as a sense of irresolution and restlessness in response to these landscapes, may be the perfect expression of the human condition.