Catalogue Essay by Dominique Nahas

In the modern and very late modern epochs Western society designates artists as creative types who are compelled to search for meaning through inquiry and open-minded skepticism. It is at the very core of individuated existence on the part of the artist to live life in a state of wonderment and in a state of incredulity at the claims made by anyone or any system vying for control of others. This dialectical position in which doubt reinforces belief and belief, in turn, invigorates doubt is held by free thinkers such as Dick Morrill in the pursuit of self- knowledge and wisdom. Morrill, taking his cues from American realists Jack Levine and Hyman Bloom among others, infuses his aesthetic with an underlying quotient of iconoclastic nonconformity and impertinent irreverence towards the status quo and its claims of authority and correctness. Additionally, Dick Morrill's art seems to center on aspects of alienation, decadence, impermanence and longing. It also alludes in an oblique way to entropic social conditions that result from and in social inequality, injustice and sociopath-like quest for power and resources. The artist's aesthetic reverberates formally and in terms of subject matter with the concerns of the German Expressionists Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

The obvious moral imperative in the work is, I think, a subset of his layered intentionality, it isn't the main thrust of his work by any means. I would suggest that basic to Morrill's art is the fact that it serves primarily as a vehicle for retinal (and thereby sensation-oriented, psychical and intellective) excitement; the surfaces of each of the artist's paintings are opulent and satisfying as is Morrill's unique color sense melded to an exquisite painterly touch that produces a surface tension that crackles with authority and articulated suchness.

Dick Morrill's very approach to the creative act of painting, that is without any overly determined method of address, spontaneously and extemporaneously, without using readymade props or outside prompts such as reproductions of artworks or photographs of any kind allows him to merge with his whole sense of being into his art. This in turn allows him to really get in touch with the full mobility or fluidity of his internal passion to play with form, to represent images and to use color and texture and composition without externalizing guidelines. It is this intense involvement in the moment to moment activity of aestheticized incarnation and its effects, that is most palpable to this viewer. The artist's drive towards self-expression at the service of his intense wishfullness is embodied as a felt condition within the surfaces of his work.

As viewers we are immersed experientially when in the presence of Morrill's art. We get involved not only in the what that is depicted in Dick Morrill's paintings - that is through identification and resemblance to forms, objects and bodies in the exterior world - but also we are equally fascinated by how he paints his allegorical tableaus or portraits. The beholder's eye takes in the extra sensorial, meaning-soaked connotative layer so loaded that it bypasses entirely the readings of what I call the anecdotal, denotative or narratological layer. The interplay between these two layers of meaning is an intertextual dimension that opens up insights into what Morrill's relations towards power, money and democracy might actually consist of (and of which he has obviously acutely individuated views - many of them shared with those of the late Gore Vidal who once famously remarked during a Lowell Lecture at Harvard University in 1992: "Liberal comes from the Latin liberalis, which means pertaining to a free man. In politics, to be liberal is to want to extend democracy through change and reform. One can see why that word had to be erased from our political lexicon.")

Dick Morrill's paintings are at their core much more than political or activist art paintings. They are eloquent rearticulations of the comic spirit. It is this comedic aspect that I believe gives Morrill's art its energy and full, dimensionality, humanistically speaking, that puts it a cut above normative social, reality art or activist art. And I would further suggest that this aesthetic and affective sensibility so deeply wise to him and to the ways of the world that is embedded and embodied in the work is of a particularly loaded and complex type. The artist's aesthetic with its mastery of caricature, figural elongations and distortions, its use of baroque compositional interplay involving distended voids and recesses along with bittersweet chromatic faceting is comedic to be sure but it is of the grotesque type. Morrill's modem grotesque, comic expression is rooted in profound play. And what is at play (apart from formal, that is pictorial play) is the principle of irreconcilable antithesis in which farce and calamity become combined thus bringing out conflicted aspects of human nature. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. Thomas Mann puts it squarely: "The striking feature of modem art is that it has ceased to recognize the categories of tragic and comic, or the dramatic classifications, tragedy and comedy. It sees life as tragicomic, with the result that the grotesque is its most genuine style."

To elaborate a bit on Mann's remark: rather than culminate in the purging of bottled, up emotions, which is the case with tragedy, Morrill's invocation of the comic-grotesque binds opposing responses together in baroque psychological knots. Such psychological stress doesn't preclude a decidedly empathetic feeling tone that underscores all of the artist's different genres from portraiture to allegorical tableaus and narratives. The upshot of all of this is that as viewers we can infer that through Morrill's comic, grotesque approach serves as a vehicle for a type of subtle exhortation. It asks us to reflect and recognize that ethical failures or moral blind spots throughout history - either collective or individual - in and of themselves are reasons enough for acceptance of human insufficiency through grace. Through his lens of compassion Dick Morrill dismantles any potential propensity towards the moralizing vehemence and hectoring that typically afflicts "political art" thus rendering such art, with its specious moral depth, shallow and as anti-art ineffective. Instead Morrill's deep humanity as an artist comes across through his approach to his complex subject matter and the significant, multivalent and often self-contradictory content that unfolds from it. Through Morrill's art, the viewer, I would suggest, recognizes that an effective way to confront the very real problems in the world caused by human lapses is to view ethical, social and political failure as a comedy of critical struggle rather than as a tragedy of imperfect realization. Dick Morrill, as all artists, works by awareness of his own state of mind. In opening up his world to the viewer through his work Morrill engages us in the task of critical reflection on the poetry within imperfectability.

Dominique Nahas

Dominique Nahas is an independent curator and critic based in Manhattan. The author of numerous articles and books, he teaches critical theory and art history at Pratt Institute and at the New York Studio Residency Program. His latest monograph, The Worlds of Hunt Slonem (Vendome Press), was released in November 2011.


Artist Statement
Catalogue Essay 2012

Recent Exhibitions