Jim Morphesis 'Wounds of Existence': Art Review

The word "baroque" kept returning to my mind as I walked through the exhibition "Jim Morphesis: Wounds of Existence" at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. In part, it's the sheer, intense, sometimes massively over-the-top materiality of many of these "paintings," with their surfaces of nailed broken planks that might have been rescued from a demolition site, or the ooze of concrete and magna (acrylic resin paint), the sparkle and gold and glitter. In part, it's the purposefully broken quality of composition, line and texture. In part the physically explicit passion for the fleshy human body, both male and female...

Female Torso with Green Doors, 1989 Oil, acrylic, gouache, charcoal, and collage on wood panel with wooden doors, 71 x 83 inches
Collection Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA; Gift of John and Phyllis Kleinberg

... in part the obsession with entropy and death; in part the emotional energy that reaches out from the surface of these artworks and grabs the viewer with its peculiar intensity.

Morphesis has been exploring such things for a good number of years now, and it's good to see that dedication rewarded with a solo museum exhibition. (My only wish is that it could have been a more extensive one than this...) Even at a time when it ran counter to the mainstream, his art was unafraid to take up the challenge of those issues that confront us simply at the level of our existence as mortal human beings: such things as pain and vulnerability, love and sex, the metaphysical struggle between belief and disbelief, religion and existential doubt; and, eventually, between the light side of our nature and the dark. If we can bring ourselves to gaze with sufficient attention into its disquieting depths (and this is sometimes, truthfully, no easy task) his work is powerful enough to overcome any reserve we might bring to it. The artist's process requires him to look fearlessly within; it invites us to look with equal fearlessness into our own inner lives.

Emotional intensity aside, Morphesis is an artist who pays serious attention to the work of those who preceded him, and who grounds himself firmly in the authority of tradition. In the series of crucifixion paintings in which he addresses his childhood associations with the Greek Orthodox church, for example, he evokes the images of Matthias Grünewald and Velasquez...

Jim Morphesis, No Sanctuary, 1981. Oil, acrylic, wood, nails, wire, tape,
and gold leaf on wood panel, 26 1/2 x 29 inches, Collection of Ray Mnich.

The raw impasto of his wounded, sometimes tortured naked human figures recalls the disturbing paintings of Chaim Soutine. He mines the deep well of archetypal images from the history of art and poetry--the rose, the skull...

Skull and Red Door, 1987, oil, magna, enamel, charcoal, paper, wood, and gold leaf on wood panel with wooden door 83 x 76 1/4 inches
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Gift of Jacob and Ruth Bloom

... and of motifs and themes--memento mori, the pietà...

Jim Morphesis, Destiny, 1982. Oil, magna, alkyd resin, and wood on wood

... that have for centuries resonated in the human consciousness, creating a powerful subtext of cultural reference that enriches these paintings with echoes from the past. Similarly, the written words and texts that lie half-buried in their surfaces bear witness to the artist's restless inquiry into the ageless philosophical questions they address.

The seriousness and profundity of this inquiry is what sets Morphesis's work apart from that of many of his contemporaries. In a culture that often seems content to skirt the surface of those things that affect our inner lives, I find his work to be not only emotionally provocative and intellectually engaging, but also remarkably courageous.
panel, 68 x 64 inches. Collection of Laifun Chung and Ted Kotcheff