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Richard Morhous
Harris Harvey Gallery, Seattle, Washington
Review by Matthew Kangas

Richard Morhous, “Amble,” 2017, acrylic on clay board, 11 x 14”

Continuing through December 30, 2017

Richard Morhous is a good example of an artist who prescribes a kind of attenuated abstract modernism, with close attention to the early 20th-century progenitors of the various trends and movements: Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism and others. As a practicing artist in the 21st century, how to make such once-revolutionary breakthroughs relevant and meaningful? Now 72, Morhous has long mastered and transcended his original inspirations, transmuting them into an eccentric view of the world that is heavily informed by vibrating colors that refuse to coalesce into a single stable image. He is closest to Pierre Bonnard, the post-Impressionist who slowed light down amid a filmy skein of scented mist. Morhous’ current work suspends his lifelong debt to drawing in favor of close-value color combinations delivering optical effects without overly naturalistic references.

About half of these paintings are identifiable Morhous, that is, gleaming with color, but strongly outlined in black or blue to anchor composition and separate chromatic alliances. The other half, the breakthrough I have been waiting for, are hovering abstractions of light and color. “Tadpole” and “Amble” are dislocated aerial perspectives on riverbed or creek scenes broken into irregular painterly fragments. Touches of blue become drops of water that seep into acid-orange blobs that are river rocks. The scale is relatively intimate, one by two feet, or two by three, so the viewer is drawn in, trying to uncover a hidden or submerged image that never reveals itself. Instead, a purely optical delight engages us with an intellectual puzzle of expected but missing representation. Familiar vistas or sunsets or city parks appeared to be on call at all times.

Also among the advances, “Everest” and “Marquee” could form one duo. Architecture becomes a fruitful subject for the artist in these cross-cuts or demolition fragments. Their smaller, notebook-page size accentuates the freshness of execution or, in the latter, the artist’s means of conveying dread or impending collapse. All of Morhous’ early work prepared him for submerging urban and rural subject matter, using it instead as a scaffolding for a more purely optical arrangement of hues, shimmering strands of color that convey nature, sunlight, twilight and nighttime without recourse to horizon line or winding creek.

“Bobsled” and “Taxi” are the most urban, recalling the artist’s 2008 show of Manhattan scenes. The latter should enter the Robert DeNiro collection immediately, so evocative of the Scorsese film, “Taxi Driver” is it, with its behind-the-windshield traffic views. This is a grittier Morhous, tempered by perky pink, orange and black haloes around stop signs.

Rejecting the fluid transparency of painterly execution in general, it’s surprising how often Morhous paints water. “Crash” incorporates a breaking surf into its overall blobby blue and green ovals. “Tide’s Out” and “Tide’s In” are more straightforward, and the least satisfying. Seen more charitably as a pair of conceptual time-art pieces, they might be the most obvious duet in the grouping, but point up how thick and inert waves can look.

Another inside vista, “Firefly,” is clearly the Metro bus driver’s view of Seattle. With the stalled traffic ahead visualized as a mass of glowing orange ovals, the painting captures Seattle’s hyper-urbanization perfectly, as does “Cornucopia,” a fruit stand at the Pike Place Market. Blurred and blended orange circles represent the fruit, and are joined by upright smears of green, blue and red: melon, berries and apples.

Among the more familiar, comforting scenes, “Frost” is winter cold to the summer heat of “Pompeii.” In the latter, instead of the ruins, overhead wires of public transportation to the site compete with lush greenery and palm trees for shade. The tension between drawing and painting is apparent, but I would love to see if such a vista painted on a larger scale could obviate that dependency. The results could be spectacular. Morhous has a way of transmitting great sunlight into splintered shafts of color that is compelling; there’s a set of hidden, radiating diagonal lines in each painting that draws the eye toward the center. Even without the telltale black outlines, Morhous can use color so cleverly that we stay with a painting longer and longer, minute by minute, unravelling its satisfying conglomeration of painterly effects toward an indirect emotional charge that lingers.

Harris/Harvey Gallery

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