Donald Morgan: Black and Yellow / Kelly O’Brien: Kulture High
June 6 – July 18, 2015
Opening reception June 6, 6-9pm
Soo Visual Arts Center, 2909 Bryant Ave S
When most people think of war zones and old westerns, they conjure up gritty images of haggard men, rough terrain, and sweat-soaked, high-stakes stand-offs. Apparently artist Donald Morgan is not most people. His show at SooVAC, which opens this Saturday at their new Bryant Avenue location, is a much more minimal affair.
Comprised of two distinct bodies of work, (one mostly black, the other mostly yellow) “Black and Yellow” is a collection of sculptures and paintings inspired by literature. The black pieces draw reference from novels such as Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic The Things They Carried, although the viewer would be hard pressed to make that connection right off the bat. Plywood panels veneered in black laminate stand and hang impassively in the space, riddled with perfectly cut holes that initially call to mind oversized dominoes. But the installation’s centerpiece, Black Flag, stands out from the rest: a jagged-edged plywood flag flies taut a few feet off the ground while something resembling a Pac Man ghost leans morosely against the flagpole. The ghost, whose drilled holes resemble eyes, stands out as the most figurative piece here, an actual character amid the plywood panels and boxes.
Donald Morgan, Black Flag Wood, acrylic laminate, 2013
This helps you realize two things about the show: first, there is a narrative to be found here. The holes in the other pieces start to read as bullet holes or, in the case of Screen II, as windows in which a sniper might be hiding (the Tom and Jerry mousehole door at the bottom gives it away). The second realization is that, despite its stylistic nod to the often overserious Minimalists, Morgan’s work has a tremendously dark sense of humor. Black Flag reads like a perverse reimagining of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima while Observer, a stack of black boxes riddled with holes, stands in the corner like some poor fool that’s been shot all to hell. The horrors of war are here, albeit simplified down almost to two dimensions.
The “Yellow” portion of Morgan’s exhibition is decidedly less dreary and not only because of the change in palette. More obvious in its American Western inspiration (specifically Robert Coover’s cowpoke fever-dream novel Ghost Town), this half of the show is more obvious in its narrative humor as well. In the gallery’s back bay, a stainless steel cast of a cowboy hat (or is it a fedora?) hangs on a long, bright yellow panel cutting across the wall horizontally. Viewed alone, The Kid might read as some kind of bizarre homage to Joseph Beuys and Pharrell. In this installation, however, the piece hovers directly between two large vertical panels holding coils of yellow rope, one of which is knotted into a hangman’s noose. You get the sense that the Kid may not be coming back for his hat. The simplicity of the yellow panels serves to highlight the rope coils and the steel casting, both visually and narratively, and the effect is at the same time menacing and impotent, like viewing museum artifacts of a long-forgotten atrocity.
Donald Morgan, Enough Rope Acrylic laminate, wood, and rope; 2014
The opposite wall hosts a large-scale yellow and silver quadriptych titled Broken Windows, which captures the sense of a disjointed narrative perhaps better than any other piece in the show; in front of that sits a small stainless steel sculpture called Cow Pie with Mushrooms. Truth in advertising. I’m not sure if Morgan cast the latter directly off of cow shit, but it serves as a hilarious punctuation mark for this literary-minded body of work.
If “Black and Yellow” is a pseudo-minimal meditation on American masculinity inspired by the written word, Kelly O’Brien’s “Kulture High” in the adjoining space is almost exactly the opposite. A bright and brash collection of grotesquely bulging boxes, hissing cat faces, and squishy pink blobs, O’Brien’s exhibition wraps highbrow considerations in lowbrow materials. You are besieged on all sides by nylon, duct tape, spray paint, and (good god) spandex. Throughout the show, realistic oil paintings of cats screech and bare their teeth in apparent disapproval. Several of the wall-mounted assemblages appear to have taken a fluorescent dump on the floor in the form of deflated beach balls, overstuffed envelopes, or giant wads of aluminum tape. The effect is a glorious clusterfuck of internet cat worship and drag queen explosion.
Kelly O'Brien, Glory Rock Vinyl, pine, duct tape, spandex, and latex paint; 2014
O’Brien’s intent is to explore “how contemporary art and pop culture compete and complement one another,” and her show, despite its garish sensibilities is not without its cultural antecedents. Glory Rock, an assemblage of hot pink vinyl and spray painted two by fours that appears to be some crude rumination on female biology, actually calls to mind some of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures. And, call me crazy, but several of O’Brien’s spandex-clad wall boxes give off the faintest whiff of Eva Hesse, another sculptor known for bridging the gap between high and low with unconventional materials. But maybe trying to validate this exhibition by looking for hidden references to our cultural canon is totally missing the point. The references are there, (baldly evident in titles such as Cat vs. Sculpture and Abstract Expressionism BAD!) but they are played for laughs. One of contemporary High Art’s gravest sins has been to take itself too seriously, and O’Brien is quick to let the air out of that balloon. The art is lumpy, the cats are grumpy, and a good time will be had by all.
Kelly O'Brien, Metallic Aggression Spandex, duct tape, latex, glitter, spray and oil paint, 2014