Abelardo Morell: Flowers for Lisa @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against cream colored walls in the main gallery space, the smaller side room, and the entry area. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2014 and 2017. Physical sizes range from roughly 30×23 to 60×45 and all of the images are available in editions of 10, except for the earliest floral work on view (from 2014), which is available in an edition of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Abelardo Morell’s rediscovered interest in the conventional floral still life began back in 2014, with a birthday image he made for his long time partner Lisa McElaney. Using a time-based multiple exposure technique akin to the one used by Michael Wesely more than a decade ago, he built an explosively shifting bouquet scene that exuberantly captures the process of incremental wilting. And with that one image, he was, as they say, off to the races. Three years and nearly 40 carefully constructed images later, the humble floral still life is still offering Morell new avenues for exploration.

Taking a cue from that first experiment, many of Morell’s subsequent works make use of digital compositing of multiple exposures. Compositions that at first glance appear straight (a overfilled vase full of sunflowers, a downward look at a floral arrangement in a wooden frame, an image of a painted still life at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) actually seem to dissolve and recoalesce upon closer inspection, the blossoms and petals fragmenting into intermingled layers of impossible forward and back. The visual effect is subtly disorienting, like time tearing right before our eyes.

Morell tests our perception more overtly in a series of flattened trompe l’oeil images that recall the witty illusions of the 1970s photoconceptualists. Intricate table top constructions mimic three dimensional space, pushing and pulling on the collapsing effect of a camera’s vision. Flowers seem to spill from an overturned vase on a plywood table, and two dimensional painted vases seem to hold real bouquets, the visual trickery laid bare but still engaging. Other works tangle with perception more directly, building a cube form out of color coordinated floral fragments and constructing a “table” out of a rectangular plane of wood and four green stems (“legs”). In these pictures, Morell is using the lessons of optical perspective to avoid the traps of the floral artistic past, consciously driving the traditional vase on a table setup into more unsettled aesthetic territory.

Yet another group of pictures introduces a series of additional artistic mediums into Morell’s floral equation. Gestural strokes of paint bring hand-crafted energy to one composition, while the scratchy etch marks of cliché verre seem to break down petals and blossoms into elusively ethereal color washes in another. He then moves on to the sculptural surfaces of what appears to be pressed modeling clay, the shiny smoothness of spray paint, and the simplifying formal qualities of screened silhouettes. Even Morell’s signature photographic techniques (the tent camera and the room filling camera obscura) are reprised here and applied to floral subjects, connecting his current efforts back to earlier lines of thinking.

In the end, this show offers evidence of the churnings of a restless artistic mind, where the intellectual constraints posed by the primary medium (photography) and the subject matter (flowers) have catalyzed a flurry of innovative creativity and risk taking. Each work on view here feels like a self imposed test, a “can I do this with flowers?” challenge that feels playfully entertaining. Morell’s ever-rearraging multiplied bouquets feel the most intriguingly disruptive in this new body of work, but the whole project has obviously opened up some new artistic white space for him to explore that doesn’t require regurgitating his greatest hits of the past. Perhaps it is just an example of the going-back-to-go-forward phenomena we see from time to time – by forcing himself to extend beyond his recognizable modes of success, he has allowed himself to be free once again, and to find the inherent pleasure that comes from devising new approaches to old problems.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $16000 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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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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