When, in the 19th century, French and English painters figured out how to make the impact of light on paper permanent, they invented photography. But that wasn’t the beginning of the search for a way to accelerate the labor of drawing. They and other artists had been playing around — seriously, but still playing around — with pinholes in the walls separating well-lit places and dark spaces for some time. Later, their research would be given the overall name camera obscura, or “dark room,” which is why we call one of the many functions of our cell phones “a room” — that is, a camera.
Some photographers never fully escape the magic of the camera obscura. Abelardo Morell, a Cuban-born American artist and art teacher, has done quite the opposite. He’s made a whole new art from the antique invention. From what must be the uncountable thousands of images he’s made, generally working in the dark and employing painting, print-making, and fabrication in a wide range of materials, and often in series that take an idea or impression through the whole gamut of his technical inventions, 14 have been selected for exhibition at Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Four of the 14 large prints that comprise La perspectiva única de Abelardo Morell (The Unique Perspective of Abelardo Morell) are collectively titled Flores para Lisa (Flowers for Lisa). It soon becomes apparent they are part of a series, and their title numbers — #26, #33, #36, and #75(!) — suggest how many ideas the series grew to include. In fact, they fill out a book, of seventy-six images, no doubt chosen from many more. Given the range of effects they present, an attentive viewer may well ponder who this Lisa is, or was, to the artist. The answer can be found in the Foreword of the book, Flowers for Lisa*:
Lisa McElaney and I have been together since we were 20 and 28, respectively. My relationship with her is at the core of my life as a man and as an artist. Our love for each other – in all kinds of weather – grounds my resolve to be hopeful and vital, even when I may feel challenged to do so. She is always my first audience and I count on her eyes to see things that I may not, sometimes.
It should be added that they have a son, who also appears from time to time in his father’s work. As for the range of floral images, which include drawings (one made in spilled fluid on a tabletop), painted bouquets, black-and-white photo images touched up with color — all of which might be expected — but also silhouettes cut out from plywood and even a box of continuously-popping-up tissues where the current offering suggests a tulip. Morell adds this about flowers as subject matter:
I chose the subject of flowers because they are lovely things – often exchanged between lovers – and they are part of the long tradition of still life in art. Precisely because flowers are such a conventional subject, I felt a strong desire to describe them in new, inventive ways, … I love the way Jan Brueghel, Edouard Manet, Georgia O’Keefe, Giorgio Morandi, Irving Penn and Joan Mitchell reworked the look of common flowers to show unexpected versions of them. The subject of the photographs in my work may be flowers, but they are also pictures about perspective, love, jealousy, hate, geometry, sex, life, the passage of time and death. I love how in choosing to limit myself to one discrete subject I was able to open doors into a world where I felt inventive, improvisational and fresh.
An early, ongoing and fundamental Morell approach involves covering a window in his apartment or hotel room with an opaque plastic sheet, in the center of which he makes the eponymous pinhole. Light passing through this small opening, as it does passing through a lens in a camera or the eye of an animal, forms an upside down image on the wall opposite. He can then photograph this image, typically using a high performance digital camera, combining this image from the camera obscura with whatever else its light falls upon. An example of how this looks can be seen in “Flores Para Lisa #36,” which though it was inspired by the camera obscura works, was actually made using a later adaptation, which is characteristic of Morell’s restless technical exploration. The bouquet of flowers and their vase — Lisa has described how much she enjoys the way the movement of flowers within their container contrasts with the stability of the vase itself — are seen in front of a door, its panel construction and frame adding to the three-dimensional, receding frame of the artwork, while the knob suggests almost unconsciously to the viewer that this, like any good work of art, is a portal to a different awareness. Had he projected the vase of flowers through the camera obscura onto the door, as he has in photos too numerous to count, it would have been luminous, since projection requires the subject to be bright enough to show up in the darkened room. Instead, by placing the unlit vase in front of the lighted doorway, he makes the flowers into a silhouette: like a shadow of unknown portent that is falling across the door.
The use of any room with a window for a camera obscura has allowed Morell to produce images all over the United States and Europe, using such different scenes as Manhattan Island and the Duomo of Florence in either contrasting or similar ways. However, the desire to take his techniques outdoors, such as outdoors in the West, led him to invent another technique, which he calls the Tent-Camera. Here the entire tent, about the size of an inverted wastebasket, becomes part of a mechanism that includes a tent-like enclosure, a lens system he made part of the tent, and a digital camera set up to shoot the contents of the tent. Some viewers and some fellow artists may worry that explaining too much about how he makes them may undermine the mystery of Morell’s images, but since he not only explains them, but provides diagrams showing how they work, he must not be concerned. Of course art works are not meant to be puzzles to be solved, and while mystery is part of the experience they provide, it arises from within the image, not from the machinations of the artist working outside it.
In each tent camera work, there are at least two visual elements, usually three, and often more. First, there is the ground on which the tent is erected. This may fill the picture frame, or it may be partially covered by a layer of something else, like the flattened cardboard box seen in “Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of The Thunderer Peak on Cardboard, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.” All sorts of pavements as well as soil covered by various scattered matter, including stones and leaves, can be seen among the various works. In the top of the tent, a periscope reflects a camera obscura image from outside, and the two orientations, horizontal and vertical, produce a paradoxical, often vertiginous combined scene to be photographed by the digital camera inserted next to the periscope. In “Tent-Camera Image on Ground: Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah,” the rocky earth and the grand arch are joined by a pair of museum vitrines holding what appear to be indigenous figurines that also seem to gaze in wonder at the arch, suggesting that appreciation of such wonders was shared with those who might have discovered it centuries before. While the visual elements are rich in themselves, there is also the cerebral pleasure of being able to simultaneously view a natural or human-made monument while simultaneously seeing the ground on which the viewer stands to see that view. It’s as close as a photograph can come to taking you there.
Some of these images are fairly simple and straightforward. Others are enormously complex and busy. Some are full of air and light, others dark enough to require long viewing just to see. One of the Flores para Lisa that particularly impressed two seasoned arts writers was #33, a vast array of foliage and flowers that spring from two vases they utterly overwhelm. The image began in black-and-white, but the artist then hand-painted the images of the vases an animated blue and touched in bits of even brighter colors here and there. The effect is to completely fool the eye into seeing not the gray tones of the original photograph, but in contrast to the colors, a funereal spray of black, dead and decaying plants. It’s the kind of illusion that, even when the viewer figures out how it works, the eye will still insist on seeing. Contemplating this, the viewer may well wonder how many more such illusive and expanding marvels Abelardo Morell has created for us to ponder.
The Unique Perspective of Abelardo Morell, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, through Aug. 27
*Flowers for Lisa: A Delirium of Photographic Invention, by Abelardo Morell. New York, Abrams, October 16, 2018