Ivan Morley’s sparse exhibition at Bortolami contained only six paintings: Tehachepi (sic) in the front room and five works in the main gallery, each titled A True Tale. While the paintings are from 2015, the titles have been around for years. Since the late 1990s, the Los Angeles-based artist has been using a mere handful of titles for all his works. Tehachepi (sic), A True Tale and others, such as Dig, Lab and El Monte, refer to humorous anecdotes and folktales from local California history that have inspired Morley’s practice. (A True Tale, for example, alludes to an ex-slave who allegedly got rich selling cats to a rat-infested town.) The works may share titles and sources, but they have little else in common. Morley’s painting is mercurial in character, moving freely between descriptive, symbolic and abstract visual languages, and utilizing an exceptionally wide assortment of materials and techniques.
Morley’s newest version of Tehachepi (sic)—the backstory concerns an American Indian family living in an extremely windy locale—depicts a stylized tree, three gigantic walnuts and a scattering of strawberries. Parts of the image are oil-painted or batik-dyed, and parts are made with machine embroidery. The other works, which appear to be entirely abstract, employ radically different techniques: two of them have been painted in oil on glass and transferred to panel; two others have been machine-stitched on canvas; and one has been assembled from pieces of leather painted with dye and acrylic. The five works have the same composition, based on the pattern of cracks in a large pane of broken glass in Morley’s studio, but their various colors and textures disguise the similarity of the basic design.
The oil paintings are covered with intricate multicolored patterns resembling the iridescence of soap bubbles and gasoline spills. The embroidered pieces are composed of blocks of solid color; in one of them, dark lines trace the edges of the colored segments or move across them in elaborate calligraphic strokes, creating little arabesques that seem to teeter on the edge of representation. The leather piece, embossed and painted with luminous colors, features not only abstract patterns and fanciful calligraphic lines but an occasional pictorial vignette: a schematic window, a wheel, a strawberry.
Even though Morley’s new works are still linked to the old tales, the connection appears to be purely functional. The stories may be necessary for the paintings, just as a grain of sand trapped in the shell of a mollusk is necessary for the growth of a pearl, but they are equally unimportant for the viewer’s appreciation of the final product. The paintings have an intimate relation to the physical labor of the artist (as the use of personal lubricant in some of them seems to suggest). They develop layer by layer, and this process links them not only to the accretion of pearls but to the repetitiveness of histories and myths, which Morley renders in purely optical and tactile terms.
In his first New York outing, Los Angeles painter Ivan Morley, who has been showing in Santa Monica and in Europe for the last decade, offered his distinctive blend of palpability and palaver in eight works dated 2008 or ’09. The titles of these playfully inventive paintings, and the fact that they’re repeated, suggest that there is a narrative, even when the work is entirely abstract. For example, the show included two works called A True Tale. The one dated 2008 is a big vertical (103 by 39 inches) that, atypically, consists entirely of patches of machine-embroidered color on canvas, the threads wispy like dry brushstrokes at the edge of each color area. The one dated 2009 is a sizable horizontal with more sharply defined blocks as well as two patches of patterns, both with fruity-looking circles over landscape-like rectangles in a combination that recalls kitchen wallpaper. The materials here are still primarily thread on canvas, but the canvas is stretched over wood and the surface is embellished with oil paint, wax and KY Jelly.
Another repeated title is Tehachepi (sic). There were three of those, all with imagery that provokes curiosity but clarifies nothing. One features a masked obese woman, breasts exposed; another centers on a lobster. The third consists of a mushroom cloud made up of what look like purple intestines, tangles of yellow yarn and silver belt buckles (I’m guessing here), above which appear two foamy pitchers of beer and either a motorcycle cap or a German officer’s cap. The style falls somewhere between Goth comics and Max Beckmann. The materials contribute to the impact: this piece is painted with oil, wax and KY Jelly on tooled and dyed leather in an irregular shape that resembles a three-part folding screen. The title, a little Googling suggests, might be due to the fact that the California town of Tehachapi has spelled its name four ways, but what that has to do with the imagery remains an amusing mystery.
Morley also teases with text, as in the painting Collateral, where the words “Clyfford Still Real Estate” emerge from a muddled background, looking tangible and battered, like an old business sign in a cartoon. It turns out that understanding Collateral, as well as an irregular-shaped abstraction called Don, George, Diane and some other works, is enhanced by hints in a section of the artist’s website called Anecdotes. Although the anecdotes consist mostly of non sequitur sentences, they extend the sense that Morley is drawing upon whatever fascinates him—a story, a substance, an artist—and pulling elements together into painting/objects that maintain their own quirky identity but allow plenty of scope for the viewer’s participatory imagining. Morley is based in the land of Hollywood fantasy, yet his thinking seems shaped more by the Brothers Grimm.
Photo: Ivan Morley: Tehachepi (sic), 2009, oil, wax and KY Jelly on cotton, 51 by 39 inches; at Kimmerich.