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Viewed in the Lens of Nostalgia

Art review: The 'Mark Morrisroe' exhibition offers a Polaroid history of the life of the late artist associated with the Boston School of photography.

June 11, 1997|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

"Save your Polaroids!" an artist-friend admonished in a small exhibition chapbook published some 20 years ago. Flushed with the spirit of Warhol and wowed by the arrival of new, instant image-making technology, he knew that, for better or worse, someday even the most banal photographs would be looked at through the haze of nostalgic lenses, admired for their shadowy status as evidence of lost worlds and of the founding ideals of a future as yet unimagined.

My friend stopped making art a few years later, but his sly prediction has come true. For proof, visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, where "My Life. Mark Morrisroe: Polaroids, 1977-1989" brings together mostly black-and-white and some color pictures by the late Boston artist. Of 188 individual Polaroid images, most shown in three big clusters on a single gallery's walls, not one is what you could call truly memorable. Instead, what meager resonance they possess is a product of their massing.

Today, it's difficult to remember the wonder and excitement that greeted the arrival of things like the SX-70 and the Sony Porta-Pak in the early 1970s. The ubiquity of relatively inexpensive video recording equipment and instant photo-developing now makes the world before their sudden appearance and proliferation seem to be in certain ways as remote, exotic and irrecoverable as the Middle Ages.

When the technology first arrived, an endlessly diverse array of individual artists with stories to tell--especially diaristic stories--seemed ready to breach the narrow establishment ramparts of professional photography and commercial television.

There is, however, something important to be learned from the example of an artist like Wallace Berman (1926-1976). He's still the only American artist ever to have made a sustained body of brilliant work using the modern technology of photocopy machines, which have been around for more than 40 years now. By themselves, technological innovations don't create great artists; they only create quirky opportunities.

Morrisroe was given the opportunity to use a 195 Polaroid Land camera when the Polaroid Corp. began a program encouraging artists to use its equipment. Not yet 20, he was a student at the school of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts when the earliest pictures in the show were made, and he was just 30 when he died.

Certainly it's a somewhat odd experience to be sifting through a museum show of the youthful work of one who passed away before reaching maturity as an artist. (The show, which has no catalog and insufficient wall text, comes to MOCA from the gallery at Connecticut's Wesleyan University). But Morrisroe is associated with what has come to be called the Boston School--artists such as Nan Goldin, the Starn Twins, Jack Pierson--and, while some dispute the accuracy of labeling these disparate artists as a "school," they have nonetheless developed considerable reputations.

For all of them, an intentionally mundane approach to photography has been important in their work. That prosaic attitude is everywhere on view here.

Morrisroe's Polaroids have been divided for the show into three loosely chronological groups: pictures from 1979 to 1984, 1982 to 1985 and 1985 to 1989. Twenty-one are in color, 167 in black-and-white. Nearly a third are self-portraits.

Think of Polaroid self-portraiture and you're likely to imagine the dazzling work of Lucas Samaras. His obsessive self-regard is transformed into a fantastic leap of imagination through experimentation with the peculiar color and physical characteristics of Polaroid's instant prints. Samaras uses exaggerated lighting to hype the artificiality of Polaroid color, and he manipulates the chemically layered surface of the developing print with implements like straight pins and rubber erasers, merging the photograph with drawing.

Morrisroe's self-portraits couldn't be more different. In fact, the slight interest they hold comes from precisely the opposite direction.

His Polaroids are casual in the extreme. Commonly over-lit, underexposed, awkwardly composed or out of focus, these are pictures made with even more than simple disregard for traditional photographic practices. Indeed, it's as if Morrisroe actively worked against those established standards.

Morrisroe's photographs get a certain juice from being frankly disdainful of the vaunted tradition of the fine photographic print. Like the Starn Twins, who tear and crumple prints and Scotch-tape the pieces back together; or like Pierson, who'll fill the frame with a blurry still life while seemingly minor background objects stand out in sharp focus, Morrisroe plainly wanted his work to stand apart from the accepted photographic mainstream.

Yet, there isn't much of interest to look at in these pictures (or in two super-8 movies he shot, which are being continuously shown in video format in the lobby of MOCA's downstairs auditorium; mostly, the films made me think longingly of the deliriously outlandish movies of Jack Smith). Like Goldin, he photographed the everyday milieu of friends with whom he lived and played.

In the end, though, it isn't the individual photographic images themselves that generate interest. Massed together on the walls, the irresistible compulsion of their making is what makes you look twice. I guess that's another way of saying that Morrisroe is somewhat fascinating as a character, but that his art finally isn't.

* Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., (213) 626-6222, through Sept. 14. Closed Mondays.

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