Aesthetic theory has always been a subset of Philosophy, a body of human thought that modern science has essentially rendered obsolete. The problem is that philosophers, be they Plato or Kant, want to legislate reality: to say, not Is this beautiful? but rather, What is beauty? The process then moves on to fitting works of art, or any other snippets of reality, into the cookie cutter the philosopher has crafted. Whatever doesn’t fit is lopped off; the gaps are left, made to appear as flaws in the beautiful, rather than in the philosophy. This allows a curator/critic to dictate, as Clement Greenberg used to do, that a given artist or artwork represents the proper next step in an historical progression that he has generously provided.
Another approach is to look closely at a work or an artist and try to see what’s actually there. As for historical sequence—and readers should know that the way canonical art history texts are ordered is an authorial proposition always open to question — successive movements in art don’t make what follows necessary; what they do is make it possible: liberating subject matter from representation, a goal of Modernism that took decades, for example, made abstraction acceptable to the public. In his current exhibition of collages at UMOCA, Sean Morello, an artist exquisitely alert to this history, celebrates the freedom bequeathed to him by a century and a half of painters by keeping his work in the littoral zone: the shoreline where abstraction and representation overlap.
Collage and Assemblage are the fundamental vocabulary of today’s art, a transformation that began with Cubism and was made indispensable by Dada and Surrealism. By 1957, British Pop star Peter Blake (who collaborated with Utah’s Jann Haworth on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) could overturn expectations with a small shock in “On The Balcony,” a seemingly elaborately collaged canvas that is, in fact, entirely painted. Since then, the boundary between collaging paintings and painting collages has been crossed in both directions. If there is something vitally accessible about what Morello is doing in these works, it’s more than turning the tables on Blake by making collage look like paintings. It’s making collages that look like specific paintings, like missing works by familiar painters: the ‘Zips’ in “Pivo” and “Maimonides” say ‘Barnett Newman’ as clearly as the Vs in “Taco Bell,” “Jobs,” and “Style” say ‘Kenneth Noland.’ A nod is as good as a wink, providing you’re in the know. If there’s a drawback to this meta-conversation, it’s how it shuts out casual enjoyment.
Morello’s accomplishment is certainly not trivial, though it remains to be seen if it’s important. It can be seen here most clearly in two works from the ‘Supersymmetry’ series “District” and “Bridge.” These works call to mind the work of Washington Color School painter Morris Louis, whose personal characteristics, rather than any particular painting, it evokes. That said, the resemblance has no art historical meaning. Louis pioneered stretching a canvas loosely in a nearly horizontal posture, then pouring liquid paints near one edge and letting them run off the other. This was a breakthrough in the cultivation of accidental elements, something made possible for Louis because of the drip works of Jackson Pollock. Let’s be clear: while a technical advance, this is more important as part of an aesthetic revolution, a stage on the way from the era when artists were determined to be in complete control of their works to an age when they can now select a slice of the indeterminate chaos around them and claim it. But what Morello does in these pieces is to depict the artworks of Morris Louis, in much the same way as earlier artists depicted not specific things, but things of a type. Morello’s most satisfying response might come when the viewer returns to the textbooks (or Google) and looks up the original, only to realize that Morello’s work, stripped of the struggle to control flowing paint, is the more assertive and convincing. The point of this is not to force high culture, a.k.a. gallery painting, and low culture, represented by the manufactured materials used in making the collage, to coexist — objects do that everywhere at every moment, as Banksy hinted when he titled his movie about art Exit Through the Gift Shop — instead, Morello is playing with the ongoing dialog between bringing objects into art through skillful reproduction and doing so with a pot of glue.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.