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... Compares the soul to a swan: "The wings half spread for flight/ The breast thrust out in pride." That was the first response to the art of James Morton. The second was: "You owe for the flesh": the recurrent doubt of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90), Orientalist and translator of The Arabian Nights. The first response was the more honest, the most immediate; but the second also hovers wherever human form is given power through art. Body and soul meld -- not in some 'sublimation,' but in provoking life, full, pulsing... sublime. The art of James Morton stirs deeply. Viewers who love art; and who love life even more, will take profound pleasure in Morton's revelation.
James Morton's art transfixes the female nude; posed, in repose, as a celebration of the physical human creature. Morton paints exquisite nudes: an impressive unveiling of both human beauty and, in a way, mortality. There is the thought that the models who inspired them will age and pass. In Morton's art, the content and approach will never know such change. Of course, today there must be some who will demur. Poet W.H. Auden observed that: "In its attitude toward the flesh, Protestant piety, even at its most puritanical, is less ascetic than Catholic piety precisely because it attributes less spiritual importance to the flesh." ["Greatness Finding Itself," in Forewords And Afterwords (Vintage Books: 1973)] In the art of James Morton, the flesh -- muscle, tendon, the varying colors and translucencies of the skin -- our most expressive veneer -- define the human creature in this world. But Morton's content inevitably inspires a viewer beyond just what he sees. Saint Augustine noted that the soul does not exist in any 'seat,' asserting that soul is in the flesh and throughout the flesh, in toto: physical presence and individual, intuited and reasoned, collaborate. In Morton's art, there is always an individual. No one can portray 'persons,' generic humanity. To have effect, the artist works with visibles. Morton's paintings bring out a human richness, with insight and great skill. Awareness and contemplation are but a consequence.
If that seems like praise, or perhaps like empty words, one need only look more closely at the works. That human form may evoke so much beyond its solid flesh is certainly not without precedents. Morton's canvas, Gillian Crouching on Knees (1999), shares a kinship of temperament with even the sculptural strategies of Michelangelo Buonarroti's Dawn or Night, executed for the Tomb of Giuliano de Medici (1524-34). Michelangelo is often cited as a forerunner of Mannerism: the primacy of human form; an emphasis on muscles, veins, solid flesh; the accenting of pose to focus on the bodily dynamics: Augustine's partner of the soul. In Morton's latest works, composition marshals all the elements of form; muscles flex in tandem as a unity; the torso in particular is posed, arranged, and balanced so that the masses of each limb play against each other muscle in the flesh, and, as well, against attendant foils: ribbons, clothing, scarf. Certainly, Kenneth Clark affirmed: " the notion of the body as a complex of thrusts and tensions, whose reconciliation is one of the chief aims of the figure arts, remains eternally true." [In The Nude (Doubleday Anchor: 1956).] All academic theory-mongering aside (and much has gone bizarre), one feels that Michelangelo's Two Slaves (1513-16), now at The Louvre, Paris, arose out of the sculptor's pure and direct desire to exult in the human form, tensed, alive, and with a fundamental dignity.... 'Out of joy of flesh proceeds the soul.' If in James Morton's latest work, there is an increase in dramatic, Neo-Mannerist pose and overall approach, it brings with it an impact.
One looks closely at Carrie With Black & White Ribbons (1999). A first impression somehow recalls the New World and Spain. Certainly, in the image -- and without any knowledge of the actualities -- one thinks of 'New Spain,' and of this Newest Spain in bonds -- displaying a nobility that bears its fundamental strength in life despite all circumstance. Again, the thought of Michelangelo's Two Slaves returns... And, as well, there is a muralistic air of Diego Rivera: Morton's composition shows affinities with Riviera's more formalist design; Morton's subject has both dignity and unguardedness; and his model is most un-Nordic in her beauty. With Carrie With Black & White Ribbons, James Morton captures something beyond artist and model: a pose which endlessly repeats itself in history. Only a person in love with art, and life itself, would ask why these canvases have that effect. And to understand effect, one must question as to cause -- that is, technique.
That Morton currently gravitates toward a Neo-Mannerist composition should be evident: his orchestration of pose and lighting is deliberate and masterful, and all the more so because it defines itself only upon afterthought -- the image's impact is immediate. Throughout his work, there is a intuitive re-directing of illumination: both in the dramatic use of selective, focal highlight and of shadowing -- the artist's chiaroscuro. Further, there is Morton's expert use of glaze: thinned color built up upon previous, subtle hues so that colors glow from lower underlays of paint. This latter prowess is difficult, but particularly essential to enlivening a feel of living skin.
James Morton orchestrates light sculpturally to develop and elaborate dimensional effects within the image on flat canvas. In recent years, illusionism in art has spurred debate, and no little academic, dry abuse; but where art succeeds, the critics often falter. No viewer has seen, nor could he imagine that natural light would so subtly, and selectively, adjust itself about its subject. Throughout James Morton's art, one perceives not Realism nor Illusion, but controlled instinctual archetypes, each drawn about a chosen individual.
With brushes, paints -- even words -- artists have debated flesh for centuries. This has been a long-explored, and tentatively approached intent -- the rendering of living materiality: flesh. And in Morton's work, the glazes are an essential repertoire. A starting point in appreciating James Morton's mastery lies with the observation of art historian and Doctor of Philosophy, Frances Borel, (University of Brussels), on 'carnation': the coloring of flesh...
Among the most eloquent, and intelligent examiners of flesh in art, one numbers Eugene Delacroix (who at once practiced what he preached). Delacroix noted:
Artists still have much, today perhaps far more, to add to the vocabulary of the flesh.
Morton's art does look to past masters: there is the "coloristic tradition of the 16th and 17th centuries as seen in the works of Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Valasquez," as noted by the artist's agent, Craig Smithberger, and, one might add, affinities with Caravaggio (a bold, irrepressible Mannerist) and Georges de la Tour (like Rembrandt, a master of light and dark).
In all this, Morton's nudes stand out in one particular. Kenneth Clark, in discussing Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, observed: "... presentation of the nude, with no pretext of fable or setting, was in fact extremely rare before the nineteenth century." Morton's building on unexhausted potentials in past art is coupled with a freedom in subject only now possible.
James Morton's Lisa Crouching on Knees (1999) stirs a sense of early awakening. Both the lower angle of a clear, soft light flowing from the canvas right, and even more, the response of flesh in nuances of tint and tone contribute to an emergent, awakening effect. The model here conveys a sense of healthy strength -- vigor. Recently, a research study into beauty among diverse cultures concluded that, although no common rationale emerged, all found beautiful what in their respective worlds appeared vital, healthy, reproductive. In Lisa Crouching on Knees (1999) Morton adds to the beautiful (by established Western terms) bedclothes and framing matrix an aesthetic strategy by which attention is focused on the human subject. Morton's art has been compared with other modern painters such as Paul Cadmus (who drew on past, 'classical' masters), Stanley Spencer, and Lucien Freud (who sought a very contrary aesthetic). Here, with respect to James Morton, and modernistic criticism, an observation must be made...
Guy Davenport in The Drawings of Paul Cadmus (Rizzoli: 1989) made an important point: "In retracing our history we will see that as much innovation happened inside the tradition as in the revolution against it." Morton's art stands firm among our best today. If only novelty and cerebral gimmickry dictated art -- and our humanity -- we could have bartered off our lives like used cars and cosmetics. There is more to art, just as there is more to life. Mirrors only reflect, but there are intangibles that artists will make visible.
Davenport's insight into Cadmus equally applies to James Morton's art: "... as in the best of Renaissance styles, there is a perfect balance of spirit and information." Both present the visitor, not with 'Realism' sensu stricto, but with interpretation: an expanded sight and resonance beyond the seen. It is not just, as Davenport said: "...to be eloquent about the muscles, tendons, and bones beneath skin, informing us about firmness, elasticity, tautness, tactility." An art like Morton's captures the attendant partner of the flesh.
James Morton has devoted many years to museum study and researching archives for technique, discoveries, potential avenues still unexplored. Interestingly, Morton had turned from art conservation to art itself upon discovering that he is red-green color blind. That fact in itself may contribute to what is an individual and distinctive body of work. Will the current apparatus of art -- the functionaries of museums and institutes, of journalistic pigeonholes -- take note?
Guy Davenport in The Drawings of Paul Cadmus (Rizzoli: 1989) noted:
Davenport could just as well been speaking of James Morton. Morton's oil paintings, rich in color, subtle in illumination, dramatic in composition are an enduring revelation: Each like the poet's "solitary soul," each "spread for flight." The oil paintings of James Morton embody Kenneth Clark's own coda:
Because it has power, the art of James Morton must whet debates: disputes about the centuries-old question of the female nude per se (this artist has done excellent male nudes); tedious debates about presentation (must radical-Femelles demand but politicized poster girls?); weary debates about 'Illusionism' versus this month's novelty. A review of a master artist is no place to pull out the art establishment's soiled linens, but they are acknowledged; and dismissed.
From September 7th through 10th, 2000, the paintings and pastels of James Morton will be exhibited at Chicago's "Around The Coyote 2000" art exposition in Bucktown/Wicker Park, centered about Damen, North and Milwaukee Avenue. After "Around The Coyote 2000," After September 10, 2000, James Morton can be contacted at the Milo Arts Building, 617 East 3rd Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43201 (Telephone: 614/ 299-0169: email firstname.lastname@example.org), or through Craig Smithberger (email@example.com).
Finis PART I/ Oils
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Many books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews are in print and may be ordered through this site's Barnes & Noble link. The Seduction of Venus: Artists and Models by France Borel (Rizzoli: 1990), while informal and at times digressive, offers artists' working intents and materials not otherwise available in English. Kenneth Clark's The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Doubleday Anchor Books: 1956) is a classic study. Guy Davenport's The Drawings of Paul Cadmus (Rizzoli: 1989) is also highly recommended, as are other titles on that artist.
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