The Aesthetic of Appliances
In 1961 Pop Art pioneer Claes Oldenburg released “I Am for an Art,” the seminal litany for the art of the era, literally including everything but the kitchen sink as viable art material.1 In prior decades, critics had steadfastly relegated purely representational art to the shadows with “ theological intensity,” out of a driven sense of “aesthetic correctness,” as philosopher Arthur Danto suggested in After the End of Art. Oldenburg foresaw an art of washing machines, gas pumps and ice cream cones splattered on sidewalks, suggesting a much broader assortment of objects, conceptual strategies and actions long since reified by late-twentieth-century artists.
While there is no doubt that John Morra’s meticulously constructed “Mertz” paintings exalt the sublime beauty of exquisitely composed junk, the artist consistently achieves a synthesis with traditional realism that makes his canvases deeply satisfying, if not surprising, on a purely aesthetic level. Morra’s Mertz appliance still lifes intentionally evoke Kurt Schwitters’s prewar Merz assemblages, Dadist collages made of everyday detritus that now hang in numerous museum collections. Schwitters’s monumental three-dimensional junk collage, however, perished during World War II air raids, after Schwitters actually cut out several floors of his house, in Hanover, Germany, to accommodate his creative project. Schwitters extracted Merz randomly from a Commerzbank ad, providing the masthead for his Dadaist publication (1923–37) and Merzwerke ad agency. Mere fragments of a similar Merzbau assemblage in Norway managed to survive, made during Schwitters’s exile from the Nazi regime, while a more complete version remains on display in Ambleside, England. Morra’s series intentionally pivots on a perverse witticism that connects Schwitters’s avant-gardist invention to contemporary realistic painting, providing what the artist regards with satisfaction as a contemporary “surrealistic crunch.” The conceptual play in Morra’s Mertz assemblages could even be characterized, with some mental acrobatics, as an homage to Duchamp’s Dadaist concept of the readymade—the bottle rack, the snow shovel, in short, the ubiquitous and quotidian non-objet d’art of Duchamp’s anti-aesthetic. Although the allusion is patently superficial, its results cannot be dismissed as unsatisfactory.
The idea for the series title undoubtedly began percolating during Morra’s involvement in the 1990s with the Paint Group in New York.2 His association with the artists who came to define contemporary realism began at the New York Academy of Art (NYAA), when Jacob Collins critiqued his graduate exhibit in 1991. The lucidity of their exchange, and Collins’s insistence that contemporary realism had nothing to do with preserving the painterly conventions of the past, but everything to do with promoting a renewed emphasis on observation, kicked off prolonged, intense conversations among Morra, Collins, Mikel Glass, Michael Grimaldi, Richard Piloco, Billy Rodgers, Dave Mahler and Peter Landesman. At Collins’s Water Street Atelier, where Morra studied and eventually taught in 1997, the prevailing dictum amounted to “paint everything,” Morra remarks with emphasis. “Go to a hardware store and buy things, paint a circular saw, draw a lamp on the window sill in daylight and by night, paint the moon outside the window in the night sky,” he recalls, remembering how any object became a teaching tool for exploration. These artists had been the contentious young students, erroneously considered conservative, who demanded to be shown how to draw again after self-expression had knocked the discipline out of studio regimens. Embarking on their careers just as a phase of fanatical critical resistance to realism began to subside, these individuals benefited from a more relaxed reception to still life, a genre that had never completely lost its clientele but required formal reinstatement in the gallery world.
Morra’s technical expertise clearly energizes his compositions, even though the artist maintains a diplomatically modest air about his skills, particularly when he compares himself to many of his Paint Group cohorts. Since 1992, despite his stated intention to devote as much time to painting as possible, Morra has been teaching the latest generation of students—the generation that experienced little critical censure concerning the validity of realism. Although he freely admits that figuration stops him cold, his first classes included anatomy studies at the NYAA (1992–94), followed by teaching stints at Queens College (1994–95), the Water Street Atelier (1997), the School of Visual Arts (1996–98) and, most recently, the Gage Academy of Art, now known as the Seattle Realist Academy (since 2000).
By his own account, Morra’s most essential education occurred during vigorous dialogues with his Paint Group colleagues about the primacy of painting by empirical observation, after what he describes as “spinning my wheels, trying to get an education for fifteen years.” Completing an undergraduate degree in English with printmaking and painting at Santa Barbara’s Westmont College (1985), Morra pursued an M.F.A. in printmaking at the University of California in Santa Barbara (1987). Westmont art professors Tony Askew and John Carlander remember an undergraduate who seemed curiously resolved about his preference for realism and accurate drawing at an early age, despite the prominent influence of experimental conceptual art at the time.3 At UCSB, however, Morra felt adrift as he struggled with the institutionalization of “formlessness” that characterized academic art programs throughout the mid-1980s. He reanchored his artistic direction in New York, receiving a second M.F.A. from the NYAA’s Graduate School of Figurative Art in 1991. By 1995, the Paint Group had coalesced as an informal group united by common objectives, and even though the group had more or less disbanded by 2000, the content and camaraderie of informal monthly meetings obviously affected the trajectories of each member. Morra also exhibited on the West Coast, in San Diego, and at the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. Nowadays, he occasionally teaches in Seattle, but his primary base is his studio in Stuyvesant, New York, housed in a quaint 1889 Carpenter Gothic church that Morra renovated and dubbed “St. Chardin on the Hudson.”
Shortly after Hirschl and Adler sponsored a Paint Group exhibition in 1999, presciently curated by the late Michael Gitlitz, the gallery initiated a concerted effort to represent contemporary realists, despite its continuing focus on conceptual art, which at one time included representation for the estate of neo-conceptualist Joseph Beuys. Responding to the interests of a significantly engaged clientele since 2000, Hirschl and Adler’s current stable of painters still features Collins, Morra and many Paint Group alumni. To some extent, at least in New York circles, the Paint Group show might be considered a pivotal event, or at least a harbinger of changing attitudes in the professional art arena regarding realism.
While Morra neither disparages nor emphasizes the notion that his visual assemblages allude to direct historic or literary references, he primarily wants the viewer to see the entire composition as he sees it while he constructs it: an ensemble that resolves formal issues in chromatic value, proportionality, depth or edge. His landscapes glow with a much lighter, more delicate palette, and more traditional still lifes—such as a series of extremely self-expressive pears “on promenade”—do not manage to arouse as much critical curiosity as the Mertz and mixer compositions. Consequently, Morra’s commentators must scramble around, searching for contrivances that might explain why his “appliance aesthetics” provide such satisfying visual experiences, when in fact the works arise from such a simple, straightforward motivation.
For example, Morra promotes the idea of a cityscape to describe the layered still lifes under the Mertz rubric. Certainly, Mertz No. 11 (2006) captures a pronounced architectonic depth within its compressed, vertical frame, enhanced by the cloud fume that animates its steamy red background, and an overall palette that suggests a glowing city street on a dark night. The cloud-stippled background also appears in Mertz No. 9 (2005), an amber and brown composition that explores rounded forms, including a brass horn, ovoid turkey baster tops and eggs balanced on top of Brancusiesque pedestals formed by stacked bowls, bottles and patinated copper vessels. Various amber bottles with hot white or yellow highlights, flecked with barely visible, but surprising swipes of Kelly green, balance the dull metallic surfaces of vessels grouped on the left side. A vintage mixer nudges into view at the edge of the canvas, anthropomorphically huddled like a mechanized gate crasher in an otherwise sensible gathering of non-mechanical objects. Most surprisingly, however, Morra unaccountably throws in a kidney—or palette—shaped opening in the immediate foreground, which unaccountably reads like a portal or a knothole that leads to a mysterious, miniature inferno. This feature constitutes one of the visual whimsies that Morra habitually adds to his compositions, ostensibly intended to provoke a sense of discovery or surprise. Its inclusion in No. 9 seems totally incidental, and yet it begs the question “Why? What is this doing there?” Other paintings reveal the partial form of a wooden crank, unmoored floating spheres or other items that seem to sneak into the composition from an edge. Perhaps an element might appear cocked or tilted in comparison to neighboring components.
A childlike sense of play applied to such imaginary metropolises might suggest visions of elevated highways and bridges swooping away from the blocks, pulley wheels and lantern bulbs that punctuate illusory skylines. On the other hand, Morra frequently refers to Jules Verne, Ridley Scott’s neo-noir Bladerunner (1982) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) as sources for the ambience portrayed in the Mertz compositions. This allusion floats more easily on a composition like Mertz No. 11, embued with a claustrophobic, almost jarringly red atmosphere, but disappears in the airy blueness of No. 10, which contrasts vitreous transparencies against dull, abraded steely metals, and a shiny silver globe that presumably reflects the artist’s studio space.
In Hirschl and Adler’s 2007 catalogue for Morra’s third solo exhibit since 2002, the artist’s staple response to the origin of the Mertz imagery centers on his dissatisfaction with the broken promises of technological advancement. Unplugged mixers and up-ended mechanical objects reinforce this sense of disappointment about the ineffectuality of mechanization, or the nostalgia of ostensible timesavers that ultimately complicate contemporary life. Do such compositions, in fact, underscore the artist’s personal reflections about the failure of technology, as he maintains? Can they carry the editorial weight of 1950s optimism in the march of progress, eventually corrupted and transformed into junk by the passage of time?
In fact, the Mertz series began as a strictly formal exercise, evolving from a standard approach used to teach novice artists how to see and, more importantly, how to draw. Keeping a formidable cast of junk characters—now including more than twenty-five mixers, often donated by well-meaning friends—Morra chooses to experiment with formal challenges as he paints the composition, piling and stacking a variety of objects as he progresses, and then adjusting reflections and shadows to accommodate new additions. The metaphorical associations and linguistic tricks that might arise from the process never generate the composition, but the composition progressively coheres as Morra applies his eye to its formal problems. Inserting or detracting objects as he paints, he ultimately sacrifices the essence of the objects he meticulously details to serve the architectonic unity of the entire composition.
Although in printed reproductions, Morra’s paintings seem deceptively smooth and finished on the surface, they evince a pronounced texturality upon firsthand inspection, punctuated by uneven glazes or occasionally thick applications of pigment. Nevertheless, he refuses to be pinioned by formulaic solutions, concentrating on a disciplined allegiance to observation and drawing. Each canvas records his exploration of opportunities and compositional problems, posing visual challenges that the viewer can experience more like a Rubik’s Cube than a vintage Sears Roebuck catalogue. According to Shelley Farmer, who directs Hirschl and Adler Modern’s program and considers Morra one of the “young artists” in the genre, Morra’s adherence to transmitting what he sees, as he sees it, makes him a painter’s painter.4
Green Mixers (2006) projects a pronounced sense of whimsy, studded by several visual puns meant for the viewer’s pleasure. The visible stippling in the shadows and the streamy surface of the flat green wood set up a toothy texture at close range, which resolves into settled flat planes at a distance. The mixers seem posed for a thoughtful soirée of some sort among equals. At a second glance, the beige Sunbeam mixer might be attempting to attract the gelatinously pink Dormey mixer of a slightly later era, emblazoned by its model name, “Isabelle”—coincidentally, the name of the artist’s French wife since 2005, Isabelle Bosquet. If there is a love story in this composition, then the artist has portrayed himself as nicked and knocked about, missing one of his primary instruments, and out of juice (i.e., unplugged).
In Sunbeam Automatic (2006) or Black and White Sunbeam (2005), solitary mixers assume distinct attitudes, facing off with the viewer or turning away in presumed solitude. Single loaded brushstrokes occasionally seem to capture complicated curves of mixing tools, amidst an intentionally strictured palette of colors punctuated by a hot yellow glint, or oddly effective yet boldly striated strokes that define the texture of wooden counters. A consistently phenomenal eye for detail makes Morra’s appliances call out to be touched. Arrayed alongside more traditional compositions in group shows, the mixers convey a punchy, jaunty impression, inviting various readings as the viewer takes the time to compare, for example, thick coiled wires or how each plug seems poised to communicate a slightly different message (as one is tempted to think).
Resisting the desire to anthropomorphize the appliances—or resisting the possibility that this still life contains extremely personal messages—proves difficult. Nevertheless, the sheer visuality of the elements and their disposition make such machinations secondary to the enjoyment of the entire composition. The sharp perspectival angle of the wooden wall on the right, various nailholes, abrasions and screwholes, the surprising addition of subtle but bold red highlights on a pink fin, or the delicate evaporation of various shadows all cohere into a memorable viewing experience. Each element is a player that reveals the artist’s infinite care as he tends his vision.
With no apologies to Claes Oldenburg, Morra’s litany would be “for an art” that illuminates the ordinary, re-engages the powers of observation and reaches beyond technical excellence to impassioned vision. Ultimately, the artist’s “appliance aesthetic” constitutes a personal mythology of things in continuous conversation with each other—a conversation that openly invites eavesdropping.
1. Oldenburg in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003 edition) pp.745–46; Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton University Press and National Gallery of Art/Mellon Lectures, 1997), p. 120.
2. Phone interview with John Morra, August 15, 2007. Kanchan Limaye reviewed “The Paint Group” in American Arts Quarterly (Spring 1999), pp. 27–32.
3. Phone interview with Tony Askew, John Carlander, Nicholas Price, Susan Savage, Charlottesville, Virginia to Santa Barbara, California, August 5, 2007. Westmont’s Reynolds Gallery exhibited still lifes Morra, his former UCSB instructor Irma Cavat and ten other Californian artists in “Views and Visions: The Still Life,” May 10 to June 22, 2007.
4. Phone interview with Shelley Farmer, August 5, 2007.