Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Finding Existence in the Depths of a Portrait: Jenny Morgan at CUAC

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In the contemporary mode, portraiture should and does explore the extremities of the subject, to the extent that the content of the portrait is no longer the subject alone, but expands to speak on an expository, universal level, addressing relevant truths and unique ontological states of being.  Such is the reach of portraitist Jenny Morgan, a Salt Lake City native who went first to Colorado and then New York to study, and who returns to her native state this month with an exhibition of compelling works at Salt Lake City’s CUAC.

Perhaps what keeps each of these portraits fresh and distinctive, each one a learning experience, is that the subjects that are the vehicle for ontological experience are members of the artist’s intimate circle of close family and friends. That she knows each subject personally, and not merely from a candid glimpse, is a vital factor in the phenomena of the portraits as they are revealed.

“Twin,” may be just this, Jenny Morgan’s twin brother. The portrait is magnificently rendered. The highlighted hair looks as if a breeze in the gallery might sweep it across his forehead.  The face has delicate, sensitive skin, perfectly shorn as if it never could grow hair. The neck gently curves to the right and the shoulders and top of the nude torso lean slightly inward. But what element is not read so elegantly and with such grace are the eyes, which, perhaps, are too elegant, have too much grace, as there is a chalky haziness to them, and the blues have a milky quality. These eyes transport the entire experience of the portrait from one of entranced awe, to one of mystified amazement and wonder. Assuredly, Morgan has taken great advantage of the idiom “the eyes are the windows of the soul.” What can be gleaned from this portrait is that Morgan has great love if not reverence for the magnanimity of this twin.  These are the eyes of one who sees much light, truth, goodness, and is a visionary of the beauty in life, of possibility, hope, optimism, and the qualities of reality that transcend the mundane “real world.”

“Bunny” is another very intimate and transporting portrait. Like “Twin,” the subject’s auburn hair seems like it could be brushed back over her milky white shoulders. A lock of hair falls over one eye, yet the gaze remains acute and distinctive.  The skin is as fleshy as “Twin,” but whiter.  And the face has received an extra layer of white.  A semi-white, streaky layer of translucent paint covers the face and descends down the neck, where scarlet gloves reach up below the collarbone and clutch at the upper chest. The existential realities made apparent by Morgan, in this case, are sensitive and very real. They cannot be hid, as much as “Bunny” might hide behind these realities with a gauze-like mask, nothing can hide her persona, as her features are very visible. Her eyes express remorse and sorrow, a regret mingled with determination. The lowered tilt of her head and the strength these eyes convey cannot help but rouse the emotional sympathy of the viewer. Her lips are pursed and also lowered and convey honesty and hope. It is in the gloves that the stain of scarlet cannot be hid, they are lucid and opaque, without contour, merely a shape, of her past and the scar she bears and the price she will have to pay.  It is a heavy burden.  It is an intensely warm and loving portrait.

“Clean” is equally if not more intense. The subject, the artist herself, is marvelously rendered: her chestnut hair reflects the cast light and falls over her fleshy shoulders with as much verisimilitude as a Vermeer. What is really captivating about this portrait are the magnificent eyes. They express the heart of a fawn and the longsuffering of Jeanne d’Arc. What obscures them, and obscures the painting, is a ruddy wash cast over the face, seemingly baked into the flesh. These are signs of the suffering and the tormented. Be it her own addiction, her suffering is no less and her torment is not diminished. The hand that holds up her chin is completely a space of white. Clean. She is now clean, yet she suffers in the struggle, and her presence cannot hide it. Her eyes cannot hide her youthful beauty and naiveté that undoubtedly caused her troubles, her resilience and her courage to surpass all obstacles and find herself in a place of pure peace once more, without the pain, without the flesh wounds, and resounding in purity.

One final portrait to observe is “All we have is now.” The symbolism in this portrait is more cryptic, but discernable.  The subject is again a young woman, perhaps a bit older, or a little wiser than the others, but the levels of meanings that address certain states of being are familiar. Here the woman is extraordinarily beautiful with sun-kissed blond hair pulled back with loose tresses falling on both sides. She has ivory skin with just a touch of shine, and bright turquoise eyes.  She looks Scandinavian, perhaps, very intelligent, with an acute emotional intelligence, as can be seen in the depth of her eyes. The painting is divided in half. The left half is a natural state of being, the right half, like “Clean,” bears a ruddy wash, but one that extends across the entire right half, from her scalp to her shoulders to the base of the picture plane. The hand on the right half that fumbles with a lock of hair, though, is painted with the same natural tone as that on the left. Although one cannot be sure what the red signifies, one is sure that it is the “other” to the state of naturalness on the left.  The eye on the left is bright and full of light and with great depth, the one on the right is squinting just a little, has lost the light, has lost the color and the vibrancy, and the eye is filled to overflowing with tears.
Once again, the viewer is transported: instead of being immersed in the gaze, or reflecting on the physicality of the portrait, as is the case with traditional portraiture, the viewer is struck by the intensity of the moment, what the eye and the cognition registers as a dichotomy, a polarity.

“All we have is now” is an existential reminder of the reality of the states of blissful existence and daily suffering, each a part of existence and a state of being. Is one to be valued above the other? Is the one necessarily good and the other necessarily bad? Cannot it be said that the one leads to complacency while the other is incentive for the most valuable and lasting of life’s growth and development? The natural hand remains while in the state of pain. Are not these two states interchangeable such a part of reality that they are?

Morgan does a superb job at creating various states of ontological experience very real for her viewer. As being sensitive and deeply in tune with those immediately within her circle of intimates, she is able to, without objectifying them, make manifest the universal qualities in each, making their story, not solely specific to them, but relatable experiences ontologically perceived through signification and the viewer’s understanding. For the viewer, and certainly for the subjects, it is a very human cycle of art making, and a very healing cycle of art making, as these realities transcend the canvas and address each viewer personally, each who might be elevated and inspired by what they are experiencing, and learning; that none in this ineffable existence are ever really alone.

Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.

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