James Morse: Because There Are Stars at Philip Martin Gallery

James Morse: Because There Are Stars, Hidden Lake, Photo Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery

A Sense of Place

Philip Martin Gallery, Los angeles
through July 30, 2022

Written by Lorraine Heitzman
If you have ever trekked through northern woods or sat beside placid lakes and wild marshlands to contemplate nature, James Morse’s show at Philip Martin may awaken dormant memories of scenic vistas and solitude. But even if these landscapes are foreign to you, his paintings will make a vivid impression, so strong is the sense of place. What is most interesting about the works is how evocative and specific they seem given the lack of definition in his loosely painted landscapes. Up close, they might be mistaken for quick studies or the underpainting for a yet-to-be completed artwork, yet step back and the crude technique coalesces into a scene of beautiful desolation made with great sensitivity.

Morse’s moody and serene landscapes are achieved through different types of reduction: his preference for simplified elements, a subtle, greyed out palette, and his naïve painting style. His quirky minimalism is most apparent in several small abstractions hanging alongside his larger works in which he eliminates the landscape altogether and plays with geometry, a sort of Rosetta Stone that holds the key to this new body of work. Regarding his technique, in many areas it looks as if the paint is applied by dry brush, but the quality is more like stain, very thin and amorphous. Patterns of branches divide the picture plane into organic grids but his compositions are simple, sometimes looking like the way paint-by-number paintings block in colors. His line work is similarly crude, and yet he has the cleareyed vision of a folk artist unhindered by academic technique.

In the highly stylized painting, The Blue Pine, Morse uses flat, simplified shapes to represent the subject of his work. The foliage, in particular, recalls Marsden Hartley’s childlike clouds, and like Marsden’s landscapes it is fanciful and prosaic at the same time. The composition is unified by different shades of blues, browns, and white, and the interwoven network of bare tree limbs give it a clunky and lacey appearance. The egret in the foreground holds our attention, but, as in real life, its stillness and color serve to camouflage, and the egret is largely integrated into the landscape. The Blue Pine stands out in the gallery as the boldest and most literal painting of the group, but the lyricism Morse finds in his other works is even more satisfying.

The Hidden Lake is a beautifully imagined wintery scene viewed from a high vantage point. Bare trees and evergreens surround the lake and reflect onto the still surface of the water. In the distance a larger body of water is framed by gentle hills at the horizon line. All is silvery and cool. Morse’s perspective emphasizes the sheltered aspect of the lake and by choosing this view, looking down upon the jumble of trees and branches, he is able to convey the contradiction of quiet amid the chaotic mix of evergreens and deciduous trees.

The Ochre Marsh is a tawny landscape that reeks of autumn. Almost completely abstract, the painting nevertheless captures the essence of the landscape. Morse contrasts the disembodied white skeletons of the trees against the muddy ground, taking abstraction as far as possible while still describing the marshland. The suggestion of a landscape allows the viewer the chance to use their imaginations to fill in all the sensory details. By adding our own details and sense memories, the experience becomes strong and personal.

Morse’s messy minimalism defies logic but has precedents. Artists from Turner to the Impressionists to Fairfield Porter were concerned with conjuring up the emotional and visual effects of light and color with increasing abstraction to achieve a new authenticity. Because There Are Stars encourages us to contemplate nature because it is a way to access the ineffable, and Morse’s immersive landscapes remind us that the range of experiences felt in response to beauty can also be found within ourselves.

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