Abelardo Morell: Changing Lanes @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 color photographs, mounted unframed and pinned directly to almond colored walls in the main gallery space and smaller side room. The works come from a variety of projects, as detailed below:

  • “Black Vessels”: 1 archival pigment print, 2020, 40×30 inches, in an edition of 10+2AP
  • “White Vessels”: 2 archival pigment prints, 2019, 2020, 45×60, 40×30, inches, in editions of 10+2AP
  • “Glassware”: 1 archival pigment print, 2019, 45×60 inches, in an edition of 10+2AP
  • “Wood Block Construction”: 2 archival pigment prints, 2021, 30×40, 48×60 inches, in editions of 10+2AP; 1 set of 3 archival pigment prints, 2021, each panel roughly 30×23 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP; 4 archival pigment prints, 2021, roughly 30×23 inches, in editions of 5+2AP
  • “Paint”: 7 archival pigment prints, 2021, 40×30 (or the reverse), 60×45 inches, in editions of 10+2AP

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many artists, forcing creativity to occur within a fixed set of constraints isn’t the stifling strait jacket that we might assume. Instead of frustrating the artistic process, the boundaries actually provide a confined space for innovation, and the artistic problem solving that then takes place feeds off of those limits. This is one reason why artists return again and again to traditional forms like the still life, even though these subjects have been thoroughly investigated by generations of talented artists. The challenge of finding something new in a vase of flowers or a tabletop setup of fruit is just the kind of self-imposed dare that will provoke some artists to new heights.

For the past half dozen years, Abelardo Morell has been actively re-discovering his own interest in the photographic still life. Starting with a single overstuffed floral bouquet image that he multiplied out using intricately layered digital exposures, he followed that path into an entire project of flower imagery. The “Flowers for Lisa” series (in two parts, reviewed in 2018 here and in 2017 here) ultimately expanded out into a range of visual experiments, each composition using a clever combination of studio setups and software manipulations to playfully riff on the history of the genre.

Morell’s new show expands into various other versions of the still life, adapting many of the techniques he developed for the flower images. Several works gather together arrangements of jugs, vases, candlesticks, and other vessels, filling small tabletops to the point of inexplicable density. In a sense, Morell has reversed the quiet pared-back simplicity of Morandi and pushed his compositions into an energized quasi-Cubist realm, where the clustered forms seem to dissolve and repeat as they overlap, like momentarily shifting vantage points. The images also actively play with light and reflection, with flares bouncing off the polished black and white ceramics and transparent highlights shimmering across and through the glass objects. By deftly blending multiple exposures (and fragments thereof), Morell creates deliberate visual uncertainty that refuses to resolve, but somehow hovers in deceptively impossible photographic complexity. Morell’s innovation here is the additive approach to building up the otherwise straightforward compositions, taking something we have seen before and amplifying it beyond the range of a single photographic moment.

A second group of new images on view finds Morell playing with the visual properties of paint. Rather than making fragmentary photographs of paintings (which many have done in various ways, including Jill Greenberg’s smart photographs of paintings, reviewed here), his works are more directly photographs of paint, often made while the medium was wet, gloppy, and seemingly still in motion. Up close, the all-over abstractions break down into swirls of gestural movement, almost like split second, top down images of storm tossed waves. Other pictures have a more squeegeed look, where the paint has been pulled or smeared in lines that become colorful stripes. In general, these composite images (again made from multiple exposures stitched together) are intensely detailed, showing each and every tiny curve, and Morell has sometimes further employed raking light to better catch the tips and edges. Seen as a group, Morell’s painterly experiments feel like a close examination of the essence of the medium and its potential for movement, as seen by a photographer with an interest in how a camera can capture its transitory states.

Morell’s woodblock constructions adapt some of these same techniques to the unique constraints of the blocks. Tabletop towers are lit from multiple sources, creating perplexing shadows across the facets that seem to interact, especially when multiple exposures are woven together into a seamless whole. One triptych of tall towers seems to fold in on itself in endless repetition, breaking down our sense of tangible depth. Other works seem to document more elemental optical tricks, where the flattening eye of the camera helps to confuse our ability to discern how the arrangements could have been constructed. While one gathering of blocks has clearly been digitally constructed, a few of the others offer less obvious clues to Morell’s deceptions, keeping us guessing at exactly what methods were used.

What enlivens these visual concoctions and exercises is a strong sense of Morell’s own enjoyment of the process. Clearly, he has long ago mastered the tools of both analog and digital photography, allowing him to pre-visualize what the camera will see and then manipulate his resulting imagery into the end forms he desires. He does this with a lightness of touch that feels altogether playful and curious, as though he has invited us along on his journey of experimentation. The best of these works settle us into a zone of uncertainty, where the reality we think we see is breaking down before our eyes. He’s updating the risk-taking instincts of the early photoconceptualists, and re-inventing those ideas in ways that leverage the advancements of the digital age.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $18000 and $36000, based on size. Morell’s work has become consistently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices at auction ranging between roughly $2000 and $30000.

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