Statisticians who keep track of such things accuse the average viewer of spending just a matter of seconds in front of most works of art; only as long as it takes to recall the artist’s name, glance at the wall text for confirmation, accept congratulations for guessing right, and move on. Mr. Average Viewer will have more than one reason to slow down when he comes face to face with Sonia Morange’s work.
Not yet thirty, Morange was born in Paris in 1977, and now resides in London. She was short-listed as a finalist for the Celeste Art Prize in May, and is currently completing her MFA degree at Goldsmiths College at the University of London. She has also lived in New York, where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2000 from Parsons School of Design.
The six large paintings in Morange’s current “Airhead” series are purposely set within a shallow, pale pictorial space: all have painted white backgrounds that facilitate fusion onto conventional gallery walls. Morange chooses to leave the works unframed, emphasizing the linear and spacial elements which contribute to a sightline that travels through all the works, a technique similar to that employed so effectively by Catherine Opie several years back in her series of icehouse photos.
Opie was aiming through the lens of a camera, sighting and exposing real objects in space, focusing and lighting actual scenes to produce imagery that fulfilled her intentions, choosing her point of view carefully to keep the unintended out of the frame. Morange works with oil paint, a more pliable medium.
|It widens her range of creative choices, but demands dexterity and skill in handling to be convincing. Painting affords the opportunity to decide not only what kinds of objects she wants to include in each composition, but their formal relationships. She isn’t limited by the constraints of time or place that tie down a photographer. Additionally, Morange takes advantage of the manipulative qualities of her medium to blur or abstract various sections of her compositions and to focus on, and bring detail into other areas, evoking a nearly photogenic believability.
Through the choices she makes, Morange sets up a narrative that compels the viewer to take the time to participate in forming meaning. Symbols and metaphors are implied through the objects represented. Interpretations cued by the artist await enrichment by the depth of knowledge, experience and/or imagination brought to the work by the viewer.
For example, careful attention to the balloon heads in “Untitled 1 (dudes),” makes discernable the subtle suggestion of open mouths. The faces projected by Tony Oursler--which give voice to his puppets--immediately come to mind. The viewer’s ability to decide exactly what messages Morange’s airheads project is challenged by other elements in the painting. The choreography employed in aligning the group of figures depicted suggests the Byzantine era “Justinian and Attendants” (c. 547), the apse mosaic at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Morange employs a similar lineup of bodies with tubular thin arms and legs, accentuated by toed-out feet. Then she dons her androgenous figures in Philip Guston pink and red shorts and tee shirts. The string hanging from the balloon heads is thick enough to read as rope. Does the obvious care Morage takes in painting each strand imply a caress of plaited hair by Rapunzul’s lover, or perhaps the rough, abrasive weight of a noose? And what are we to make of the boxing gloves that hang like animal carcasses, fully dimensional against the flags of pink shorts behind them?
The selection and placement of imagery, heightened by the artist’s skillful enlivening of an artificial reality through her command of the media, is equally compelling in other paintings in the series. “Untitled 3 (robots and poppies)” suggests a family of robots, apparently relatives of the Jetson’s outdated but beloved housekeeper, Rosie. The toy-like machines are let out to pasture in a poppy field worthy of Monet’s garden, the Wizard of Oz, Flanders Field, or Afghanistan. Each flower is painted with such exquisite precision and detail that it might have been seen through the eyes of someone whose vision was enhanced by an intimate encounter with botanicals. The story takes an ironic twist when one begins to investigate the roots of Morange’s fantastic garden.
Each painting’s fully loaded scenario is enhanced by imagery waiting to be decoded within other works in the series. Poppies fade, robots become entangled in rope and wire or are carried off into space. In one haunting composition, “bouncing gloves,” a few balloons lift into the atmosphere while others deflate beneath a line of boxing gloves dangling from old-fashioned springs that resemble those toymakers once used to propel Jack out of his box.
In order to further explore linear forms, spatial shifts and inconsistent perspectives, Morange plans to construct and assemble groups of charcoal drawings on paper that will relate to the electric cords that surface in several of her paintings. The drawings were not completed at the time of this writing, but no doubt they will give you and Mr. Average Viewer additional justification to slow down and take time to fully absorb Morange’s work.