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THE ART GALLERIES

Santa Monica

March 14, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

They say the tide of Neo-Expressionism is running out in New York. Well, true to the laws of nature, it is still rising in California. The latest defector to its ranks appears to be the talented painter Jim Morphesis. If this is something of a disappointment, at least Morphesis' version of it produces handsome results and beguiling thoughts.

The exhibition of nearly 30 paintings and drawings is a numerically substantial affair bristling with energy and suave command of means. Large works in the main gallery are such muscular combinations of lava-thick paint, weathered boards and rich, somber colors that one fails at first to note that they have subject matter, mainly human skulls and male torsos. In other examples, like "Prometheus," the subject is on a par with the great slathers of paint.

Here the fun begins. Morphesis is such a virtuoso that the work lacks the ineptitude required by Neo-Ex. Instead, it sets one thinking of the '50s when Abstract Expressionism was the virtually universal language that every artist had to cope with, one way or another. Even figurative artists who presumably hated the style had to tip their hats to it as they painted along.

The results tended to expose an artist's real character in spite of himself. I am thinking of a relatively minor New Yorker like Balcomb Greene. He tried to combine AE drama with the spooky imagery of Francis Bacon and all he got was elegant romanticism. In Morphesis' case, his attempt to be morbid and heroic only dramatizes what a serene and classical temperament is at work here. It's as if a blood line running from ancient Greek sculpture through orthodox Byzantine decoration had mixed to produce a kind of California Raphael, capable of anything except unhappiness. (Tortue Gallery, 2917 Santa Monica Blvd., to April 12.)

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