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September 10 - October 29, 2005, at Jan Baum Gallery, West Hollywood

by Betty Ann Brown

“Meat Study 111," 2005, oil, enamel,
gouache, pastel, charcoal, joint
compound, collage on paper, 18 x 13”.

“Open Light and Dark,” 2005, oil,
enamel, acrylic, charcoal, joint
compound & collage on
wood panel, 36 x 24”.

“Prime Cuts (For Jack)," 2005, oil, enamel, gouache, pastel, charcoal, joint compound, collage on paper, 80 x 45".

"Flayed with Light," 2005, oil, enamel, acrylic, charcoal, joint compound
& collage on wood panel, 36 x 24".

In 1964, French poet Jean Genet published an astonishing essay on Rembrandt that is titled “Something Which Seemed to Resemble Decay. . .” Genet began the essay by describing an epiphany he had on the commuter train, a profound realization of the oneness of all humanity. He connected this realization with his response to some late Rembrandt paintings, arguing that the late portraits don’t so much depict individuals as they depict the nature of humanness. At the end of his essay, Genet asserted that in order to create such paintings, “Rembrandt had to recognize himself as a man of flesh--of flesh?--rather of meat, of hash, of blood, of tears, of sweat, of shit, of intelligence and tenderness, of other things too, ad infinitum, but none of them denying the others, in fact each welcoming the others.”

I thought of Genet’s essay while pondering Jim Morphesis’ new series of paintings. Titled “Cuts,” the paintings were initially inspired by the artist’s experience of the meat packing company located on the floor below his old New York studio. Morphesis saw the sides of beef hanging in refrigerated rooms, and of course recalled Rembrandt’s painting of the carcass. He created his first images of hanging flesh in the 1980s, while he was still living in New York, then re-visited the image over the last few years back here in Los Angeles.

Although the initial paintings and drawings were fairly recognizable as sides of beef hung on large metal hooks, by late last year the forms had become relatively abstract. Instead of portraying the beef in any naturalistic sense, Morphesis began to use the shape as a foundation on which to paint and draw and glue and scrape and erase and re-paint with abandon. In other words, he began to communicate visually with the form and--always aware of the evocative significance of flayed flesh--dialogue in the powerful expressive mode which is uniquely his own. In doing so, Morphesis has created images that speak of eroticism and decay, beauty and repulsion, attraction and resistance. “Cuts” seduce even as they confound. The surfaces are richly embedded with forms that suggest but never quite illustrate body parts: viscera, muscles, orifices, bones. The colors are wild and sensual, shooting from blood red to chartreuse in improbably orchestrated conjunctions. The gestures sweep and roil, then ricochet off fragile, almost comical, drawings of flowers. The flowers call to mind the blossom on the edge of Picasso’s “Guernica.” And seeing the connection with Picasso, of all people, brings me to the oneness Genet wrote of while looking at Rembrandt. Is it precisely that oneness that makes Genet’s passages so apt for describing the power of Morphesis’s work, not to mention all work able to intone these apparently timeless allusions?

“It is when he starts depersonalizing his models, when he prunes objects of all identifiable characteristics, that he gives them the most weight, the greatest reality. Something important has happened: the eye recognizes the object at the same time as it recognizes the painting as such. And it can never again see the object otherwise. Rembrandt no longer denatures the painting by trying to merge it with the object or face that it is supposed to represent: he presents it to us as distinct matter that is not ashamed to be what it is. . .I do not know what the spectator gains, but the painter gains the freedom of his craft. He presents himself as the mad dauber that he is, mad about color, thus losing the hypocrisy and pretended superiority of the fabricators. . .” Genet could have been writing about Jim Morphesis’ “Cuts.”