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Classical Kinship:

Jim Morphesis finds affirmation and inspiration at the Getty Villa's 'Greeks on the Black Sea.'

July 22, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"IT seems to me that disturbing people's final resting place is an impolite thing to do," says artist Jim Morphesis. But he's curious about "Greeks on the Black Sea: Ancient Art From the Hermitage," an exhibition at the Getty Villa featuring 190 objects unearthed from tombs. He agrees to take a look. And yes, he'll share some thoughts about the artworks, selected to illuminate a 1,000-year interchange of Greek colonists and nomadic Scythians of the southern Russian steppes that began in the late 7th century BC.

"As I understand it, these burial mounds were pretty much intact until they were excavated in the 19th century. How come all that time?" he asks Janet Grossman, the Getty's associate curator of antiquities, who organized the show with Anna Trofimova of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which maintains a huge collection of Greek finds from the Black Sea area.

"The mounds were probably thought to be natural features of the landscape," Grossman says. "What's interesting is that the first ones were discovered by accident. Some troops were seeking refuge during a snowstorm. They started digging into one of the hillsides to make a shelter and came across a stone structure, a tomb building that was under the ground."

Thanks to that chance discovery, Russian curators and archeologists subsequently uncovered troves of gold jewelry, stone and bronze statuary, silver, glass and ceramics. And the sampling at the Getty Villa (through Sept. 3) sparks a stream of questions and comments from Morphesis, a Philadelphia-born, CalArts-trained painter who lives in Los Angeles and incorporates aspects of his Greek heritage in highly textured, Expressionistic works. Lean and muscular, with a thick mane of wavy hair, he's a bundle of pressurized energy who speaks in bursts of animated intensity. In his work, he has referred to icons, used traces of gold and grappled with themes from Greek mythology in paintings that also draw from European art history and daily experience.

"When I see shows like this, I'm always fascinated by how artists worked, what was on their minds, how they were looked at," he says, waving his arms as he talks. "I always wonder what their studios were like or, in this case, their workshops. Did they work under daylight or oil lamps? Could they work at night? Did they do preliminary drawings? If so, what did they write on? Wax? Lead? Potsherds? The ground? You think about what life was like, the connections and the differences between then and now.

"You almost imagine that the artists worked with optics," he says, peering at an astonishingly intricate gold necklace. About 100 tiny filigree rosettes with beechnut-like pendants are attached to a band of delicate chains. At each end of the band is a stylized head of a lion holding a ring in its mouth.

"This makes me think of dental work," he says. "And that makes me wonder what dental work was like at that time."

A relief of Scythian figures encircling an elaborately decorated gold vessel offers an answer. As Morphesis checks out the images, he spots a vignette of two long-haired men on their knees. They lean into each other as one man holds the head of his mate with one hand and reaches into his mouth with the other.

"I think dental work consisted of pulling out whatever was hurting you," Grossman says.

Moving on to less painful subjects, Morphesis examines a pair of gold ear pendants adorned with lions' heads, a gold drinking horn that tapers to a sculptural likeness of a dog, and a necklace with garnet clasps shaped like ivy leaves. A crusty bronze caldron also catches his eye. "I like the grit," he says. "Everything else is so pristine."

Bigger-than-life-size marble sculptures of a man and woman, found in a cemetery, provide a glimpse of people who prospered during the period when Greek traders settled along the north shores of the Black Sea and imported products made for the Scythian market. Exemplifying the hybrid civilization that developed, the man wears Scythian boots and Greek-style drapery around his body. A bundle of scrolls identifies him as an educated person of high social status.

'A figuratively abstract artist'

IN startlingly good condition, the figures appear very realistic. But Morphesis questions that.

"Depending on the way you step into my work," he says, "you might think I'm a figurative artist. Lately you'd think I'm an abstract artist. I'm kind of a figuratively abstract artist. But even when I was dealing with a more Hellenistic kind of images, I was always abstracting. When I see something like this, I always wonder about things like how much this guy weighed and if the artist added something to it.

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