Studio Visit: Jim Morphesis, Odysseus and the Search for the Eternal Wound of the World
By Gary Brewer
“And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling…
—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again…”
T.S Elliot, East Coker from The Four Quartets
“…for now before you stands the bowl of roses,
unforgettable and wholly filled
with unattainable being and promise,
a gift beyond anyone’s giving, a presence
that might be ours and our perfection.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Bowl of Roses
Death and resurrection, the myriad ways through the journey of life that we lose something – youth, love, innocence – and how the past is erased through time as we proceed into the eternal present. Though it is a loss we can never regain, it is the quest to return to innocence, the attempt to reclaim what was lost that propels us. In a state of constant renewal, it is the regenerative principle of Eros that is our guide. Jim Morphesis is an artist who uses the process of painting to search for that which was lost. To build up in paint an image of the body, to destroy it and to rebuild it again and again. It is a record of its destruction and regeneration, a history in the paint, the pentimento of the struggle and the scars of the journey that are our only hope for redemption.
The body as a metaphor, the crucifix, hearts, skulls and the rose as the eternal wound, resplendent in its beauty and a thorn in the soul, Jim Morphesis uses the rich history of images and symbols associated with both Greek mythologies and Christian themes. It is the body at its most vulnerable that is the alchemical agent through which the process of painting becomes a vehicle of emotion.
We spoke about his journey and how he transitioned from his early minimal/materialist paintings when he first arrived in Los Angeles, to the iconography that he has been obsessed with for the last several decades. “When I moved to Los Angeles I was creating minimal paintings, mixing glass beads and various materials, to create dense thick surfaces that were as much about material as image. I started to use the cruciform as a structure, I was raised Greek Orthodox so the form was loaded with meaning from my personal family and cultural history. I started drawing an image of the crucifixion onto the wooden panels before I laid on my thick monochrome paint-material. I was testing the waters thinking about the image and if there was a way I could incorporate it. I came across a reproduction of Velazquez’s Crucifixion and glued it to a panel and painted around the image. I was aware of some small studies Brice Marden had done with his subtle gray encaustic paintings where he used this image by Velazquez placing a reproduction of the image within a field of gray. Somehow it gave me the liberty I needed to go forward and I decided to take on the history of the image and make it my own contemporary pan-mythic metaphor. To use the image of the death of innocence and beauty, of the body of man at its most vulnerable and beautiful for its expressive force, that was my goal”
Images of skulls, the torso, hearts, the crucifixion and the rose have occupied his mythic journey of redemption, it is a body of work in which the body itself gives him the freedom to create and destroy an image until something has been found. The history of the process is naked, a road map of discovery and a metaphor of the scars that become embedded into our flesh from the journey through life. “I experience a kind of catharsis in the process of painting, not to sound heavy handed but it is a search for meaning, to give weight and force to the transience of the flesh.”
I asked about the Rose image that has occupied his paintings for the last several years. “ The Rose came about by way of one of Caravaggio’s paintings of “Doubting Thomas.” Caravaggio, who always pushed a sexualized subtext to his images and never shied away from his darker impulse, painted the finger of Thomas penetrating the lance wound in the Christ’s side, his finger is lifting the flap of skin to reveal the bloody flesh inside of Christ’s body. The strange disturbing power of it and the rose petal-like flap of flesh reminded me of a rose. I painted these images of the rose with that idea as a subtext but also loaded with the many symbolic narratives associated with it.” The image fills the canvas radiating outward from the center. It is both ecstatic and meditative, there is heat generated from the lush reds, on several petals a droplet of liquid – a tear, sweat or blood – bleeds from the painting. The movement of the petals spilling outward into our world expresses the generative nature of the erotic principle.
There is a painting in his studio of a male figure. “Hostage” is roughly 6×4 feet. The paint is applied with expressive force. Each bold stroke of paint, a gestural assault building up surface and defining form. It has a physicality to it, the paint surface thick and craggy,. It channels an existential ethos, the unbridled desire of the artist to capture the violence and beauty of the body. The beauty of the ideal besieged by the forces of time, history and of the mortal coil. It is a powerful painting that exemplifies Jim’s deep engagement with his work, and the desire to wrestle meaning and redemption through discovering a hard won truth excavated from the complexity of paintings immediacy and impact. Painting has the ability to function simultaneously on many levels and capture something about the maker in its supple recording of intention and desire, and the many failures and false starts through which one ultimately finds a shadow of the dream.
Jim said of this search, “It is like Odysseus searching to find his way home, it takes him 20 years, but he finally realizes his quest. But for the artist it is a journey in which we will never arrive home, we can only leave a record of the search.”
The pathos of reaching across the chasm, to reconnect with the life impulse, it is the battle between Thanatos and Eros, a search for meaning in a world that collapses and cancels out the past, our past. Jim Morphesis seeks to use the process of painting to search for the unattainable, to find that which has been “lost and found again and again”. It is a reconciliation of the contradictions of existence; Of finding a way to mend that which has been broken. We are all on this search, it is the eternal quest of the human condition in which paradise lost can never be regained we can only strive to bridge the gulf that separates us, the quest for which the language of Art was created.
Jim Morphesis: Passion and Presence, Memento and Myth
November 18, 2017 – February 1, 2018
W. Keith & Janet Kellogg University Art Gallery
California State Polytechnic University Pomona