Mark Morrisroe, Hello from Bertha @ClampArt

JTF (just the facts): A total of 44 black and white and color photographic works, variously framed and matted/unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller back alcove. All of the works were made between 1980 and 1989; most are vintage, aside from the photogravures which were printed posthumously. The number of artworks on view, their individual dates, and their processes are detailed below:

  • 1 collage of printed matter, spray paint, shipping tape, and acrylic on glass, 1980s
  • 7 gelatin silver prints (1 sepia toned), 1980s, 1980, 1981, 1983
  • 2 gelatin silver print diptychs, 1981, 1982
  • 8 chromogenic prints (negative sandwich) retouched with ink, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985
  • 2 chromogenic prints, 1982
  • 4 offset lithographs, 1986
  • 3 cyanotypes, 1981
  • 1 gum print, 1981
  • 1 excerpt from Super 8 film, 1983
  • 1 Xerox on pink wove paper, 1981
  • 2 Polaroid prints, 1981, 1984
  • 4 photogravures, 1983, 1985, 1986,/1996
  • 6 photograms (1 sepia toned, 2 hand painted), 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Contemporary photographers who are enthusiastically diving into the deep end of the newest interdisciplinary photographic processes would be well advised to study up on the photography of Mark Morrisroe. In the span of roughly just one short decade (the 1980s), Morrisroe experimented with an astonishing variety of photographic methods and processes, bringing a hand crafted, often glamorously romantic aesthetic to his investigation of personal identity. This show is an engaging sampler of effects and looks, from photograms and cyanotypes to sandwiched negatives and gestural inscriptions, each a layered, manipulated attempt to add meaning and resonance to an individual image.

Seen in the context of his Boston School contemporaries (Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Jack Pierson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and others), Morrisroe’s body of work seems infused with an unfulfilled, searching quality, sharing commonalities in the exploration of identity via portraiture with his contemporaries, but feeling more restless and unfinished in terms of finding his own voice. While his works are grounded in a similar personal intimacy (and the friends, lovers, and settings of his own life), his pictures reject a realist approach, opting instead for a looser, more filtered aesthetic experience. When he gets the alchemy just right, his photographs mix intimate immediacy and rich physical presence.

Morrisroe’s so called negative sandwiches are his most inventive creations. What’s fascinating about them is their clash of aesthetics, where raw and gritty meet an almost Pictorial grace. Posed interior nudes are at once rough and classical, modern bodies and faces transformed by tints of muted color and softened by a tactile graininess, a draped cloth, a bouquet of flowers, and a ceramic owl becoming still life elements of a glowing painterly world, that very romance then brashly interrupted by scrawls and scratches along the borders of the images. Heightened shadows and surface distressing do the same for his black and white Polaroids, making seemingly everyday portraits and nudes into physical talismans. And the multicolored hues of the gum print, the luscious blue of the cyanotypes, and the thick browns of chemically toned photograms offered Morrisroe yet other avenues for manipulating our experience, where hard becomes soft and confrontational becomes refined.

I like the out of control, going everywhere at once feeling of this show; it’s uneven, but it speaks to an artist trying to find fresh ways to communicate. Not every experiment yields entirely memorable results, but the whole of the work seems much more than the sum of its individual parts. What’s more, these images from the 1980s don’t feel dated; in fact, they bristle with an energy that is generally undiminished some 30 years later. Morrisroe’s explosion of risk taking and myth making still has the inventive power to keep us looking.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $3000 and $40000, with the negative sandwiches at the top of that range. Surprisingly, Morrisroe’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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