November 27, 2010-February 13, 2011
In the Eleventh Hour
The show card for one of Mark Morrisroe’s first solo exhibition in 1981 at the 11th Hour Gallery in Boston captures the artist seated in drag—a tight halter dress, dark bouffant wig, gaudy jewelry, and thick lipstick—cupping his hands below his chin in imitation of a starlet’s headshot. Modeled on a photo of the young Tina Turner, the black-and-white image is both comic and formal. With sunlight across his face, shoulders, and on the wall behind, Morrisroe’s intent pose and pursed lips are offset by the roll of toilet paper visible just past his shoulders and the cheap chair he’s perched on. The elongated shadow of a windowpane stretched out across the wall complements the practiced gesture of a wistful far-off look in what is a highly calculated yet clearly improvised self-portrait. A similar makeshift glamour and elegance exists throughout Morrisroe’s work as grit imbues role-playing, and a matter-of-fact intimacy informs often distanced, formal compositions. And while the announcement reads rather simply “Mark Morrisroe at the 11th Hour,” the show itself marked the arrival of a dissembling, contradictory persona, as the photographs that comprised his first exhibition reveal themes and strategies integral to all of his subsequent work.
The juxtapositions and themes explored here foreshadow what Morrisroe would continue to pursue until his untimely death in 1989 due to complications from AIDS as tender meets menacing, hostile sits next to gregarious, and the voyeuristic is transformed into the everyday in the vision presented. Unusual in that his later shows were often arranged in collaboration with his close friend and eventual dealer Pat Hearn, the pacing reveals Morrisroe’s early interest in presenting the casual, comedic, and exhibitionistic in concert with a melancholy reserve that haunts the fast and loose nature of Morrisroe’s working primarily with friends and acquaintances. Blue-tinted gum prints of appropriated ephemera, including the Tina Turner publicity shot and two Chihuahuas huddled in a forced embrace for the camera, extend the show invitation’s atmosphere of knowing masquerade, fabricated lives, and self-reflexive play. Handwritten upon by Morrisroe, the motif of the celebrity signature further lends a register of the casting call or film production to the portraits of friends, lovers, and strangers that make up the choreography of his early exhibition.
A left-to-right sequence of five portraits along one wall begins with the profile of a slightly skeptical looking young blond man holding a dog up before the camera. Nestled in close to the dog, the man’s wary glance toward the camera is cast by only one eye. Placed as it is alongside a bondage image of a body on a bed wrapped entirely in plastic and tape with only a tube to breath through, the portrait of a boy and his dog goes from showing a merely reticent gaze to conveying an alienated discomfort alongside the effaced gesture of complete sexual submission. Followed by the solemn portrait of a waifish dark-haired man with the impression of a scar running across his cheek, the sequence ends with back and front portraits of Stephen Tashjian sitting naked before a wrinkled bed-sheet backdrop—a focused study from behind of back, ass, and crossed legs with white high heels is paired with a flamboyant yet relaxed backstage grin before the camera. Shifting rapidly from a tenuous cliché gone awry, man and his best friend, to an erasure of self in the violence of sadomasochistic pleasure, through to the trusting offhand presence of a friend sitting for a nude study, Morrisroe shuffles emotional affect in what is a back and forth approach to portraiture, simultaneously courting and discarding cool, sentimental, disturbing, and sexy.
As a result, Morrisroe maintains a space between confrontation with the camera and a knowing familiarity or unguarded quality that characterizes the attitude of many of his portraits here, from the looking down her nose reserve of a young Nan Goldin—leaning back and away in bra and pearls—to the images of Jonathan (Jack Pierson) stepping naked from the backlit glare of a bathroom and posing like a louche James Dean in denim jacket and underwear on a couch. The subjects appear to return their gaze more to the person behind the camera than into the camera itself, acknowledging and, at times, appearing on the verge of resisting direction. A shirtless old man with tattoos glares but with loosened shoulders in one photograph, while in another a young man stands at attention before a curtained backdrop in his underwear, head-cocked in anticipation; a naked woman smiles nervously as she holds a housecat up and away from her body, and a man in a white suit jacket and dyed blond hair appears ready to break up the shot with a pointed question. In short, the eros and tension of these early pictures is, in part, their representation of a negotiated status of desire, existing between the diaristic and melodramatic, between the highly staged and offhand.
Indeed, two images within the series of portraits show mirrored views of their subject wherein the camera’s flash and Morrisroe himself appears in the background, images that underscore the artist’s insistent and even invasive approach. In one a pretty young woman in a fashionable dress maintains a downcast, angelic pose as Morrisroe holds the camera aloft over his head in the background, while a voyeuristic second image depicts a naked older man taking a piss in a rundown bathroom and Morrisroe there to take a shot from behind. Destabilized by the mirror and flash, a formal symmetry nevertheless prevails in presentation as the hunched back of the man is offset by the averted glance of the young woman, and the refracted presence of the barely visible Morrisroe (in the role of director) behind both, as neither subject looks into the mirror. The turning away of each allows a voyeurism to share the stage.
Overall, the series tacks between the offhand and highly constructed, from a picture of a dead rat on its back, splayed legs in a pool of sunlight, to the additional self-portrait in the show—a variation on the pucker of his Tina character. Previewing the so-called “sandwich prints”—where Morrisroe would take a color photograph and re-photograph it in black-and-white before superimposing both in the printing process to obtain muted and painterly tones in the final composition—the variation between tones in this early show (from gum prints to gelatin-silver prints) is less pronounced but initiates Morrisroe’s use of a varied printing process to create his own formal punctuation. Culled from his longstanding and compulsive desire to document his life as noteworthy and notorious, the 11th Hour series nevertheless shows Morrisroe to be committed to a heavily edited presentation of formal correspondence, technical experimentation, and sequences of narrative disjunction.
In contrast with the more than 2,000 polaroids taken between 1979 and 1989—which he never exhibited during his life—Morrisroe’s first show emphasizes a classicism at times in its restraint and austerity. Still, it is comprised almost entirely of interior scenes, betraying an intensely privative aspect to Morrisroe’s confabulations, relying as it does on modest means and largely unadorned scenarios. Even while taking into account the so-called “trash” aesthetic of Morrisroe’s Super 8 films and live performances—influenced in style by Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and John Waters—the vision of New York told through Morrisroe’s photographs, having moved there in 1985, is resolutely interior, underscoring both the claustrophobia and unguarded intimacy of apartment life: unmade beds, bric-a-brac of inexpensive but personalized items in various altar-like configurations, bandages, baths, showers, sleeping, pets, masturbation, kitchens, dishes, the glare of exposed light fixtures, masks and figurines, sex, the occasional dress-up, drunkenness, or live music, but always the bared human form amid all the stark interiority of these backdrops.
And if there is an obvious and overt theatricality to Morrisroe’s portrayal of himself and his circle of friends—this has repeatedly been the focus of much of what has been written about his work—there is simultaneously a keen withdrawal into the circumscribed interior of the apartment, an increasingly isolated view of not only the social sphere but the body itself. On this hemmed in stage, the body is statuesque and symbolically narrative yet pulsating with the anxiety of close inspection before Morrisroe’s gaze. David Joselit’s critical appraisal of Morrisroe’s work holds that “the theoretical significance of Morrisroe’s effort to “write a new life” lies in his recognition that the compulsive and repeated effort to invent and re-invent oneself is fundamentally a form of “lying”—or fictionalization—and that “truth” is made up of a succession of lies. As an artist, Morrisroe located this performance of self at the heart of the photographic process.”(1) In other words, Mark Morrisroe’s notorious reputation among his friends for lying about his past and present, for repeatedly declaring and altering his own hagiography, is to follow Joselit’s argument, a delayed discovery of self through the interplay of masks—a repeated donning and discarding of one’s own history, gender, and self-image through deferring a stable subjectivity and embracing role reversals. And while the tactics of estrangement in Morrisroe’s images are readily apparent, there exists a simultaneous retreat that points to a refusal of self beyond the role of masquerade. The makeshift interiors of Morrisroe’s photos repeatedly iterate the surface and pose of the body as capable of revealing an unadorned self.
When the skyline or outside world does make a rare appearance in the work it is at an increasingly severe remove that alienates even as it exposes the surface of the body as the bare self. For example, untitled C-prints of a pelican silhouetted in flight or a gnarled piece of driftwood at Coney Island, are put through Morrisroe’s superimposed printing process to attain a muted quality that displaces the natural world into a ghostly, unattainable beyond. The driftwood stump appears as if it could be a mirage risen up from the heat flares of a formidable desert. And even the close up view of a sparrow tattoo on a man’s chest is blasted into a corrosive unearthly orange pallor. The sunset behind a balcony portrait of a young man with long blond bangs is likewise pushed into a dark haze of purplish hues that engulf the obscured visage. Here, the man’s body is untethered and left to float into the haze of Morrisroe’s treatment as the supposed neutrality of the negative is left completely behind for a mood that approaches the Pictorialist tactics of George Seeley and Aflred Stieglitz at times. Seductive and mannerist in his disenchantment, Morrisroe collapses figure and ground in the balcony image and elsewhere—creating wraith-like apparitions and forlorn landscapes in the process. A sandwich C-print titled Sunset over Central Park (1986) shows the distant Manhattan skyline with a billboard in partial view; tinted into an exaggerated shadow and scratched, the city appears impossibly remote and out of reach, not unlike Morrisroe’s Brooklyn Bridge (1986) which depicts the Gothic arch and tower of the bridge from the Brooklyn side under a looming barrage of sepia-like storm clouds.
There exists little to no exterior in Morrisroe’s later work that does not appear distanced and ghostly. And perhaps no image captures this more than Ramsey, Lake Oswego (1988). A portrait of Ramsey Phillips, the artist’s partner toward the end of his life, pictures a man’s face under water. With closed eyes and seemingly sinking from the surface, the face inevitably becomes a death mask. Processed into a dark golden hue that deepens the shadows, it is an indelible and haunting image even though a pair of Morrisroe polaroids from the same trip to Oregon reveal the actual lake scene to be one of lovers hanging out and horsing around. The image underscores how the work Morrisroe intended to be part of his portfolio was approached much more deliberately than the casual openness of the polaroids and their contrast to the retreating melancholy of the superimposed imagery.
While the interior portraits also move from statuesque toward apparition, Morrisroe’s experiments with the photogram extend and vary his ongoing experiments with printing techniques. Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing through to his last days, the photograms evince Morrisroe’s restless technique, pushing the imprinted nature of the photographic image as a contact surface to the forefront. And, in this way, they betray a more playful if still elegiac vein to his later work. Chest X-rays showing the pneumonia he had contracted due to the complications of advanced AIDS, for example, are repurposed into a retouched triptych where saturated orange, pink, green, and blue tones preside along with the marks of his rough handling of the surface with acidic colors and caustic dyes; the three side profiles of his emaciated body give off a semi-transparent glow as Morrisroe transposes the evidence of his deteriorating body—recalled by his name and patient ID visible in the upper right hand corner of each composition—into a pulsing abstraction that still gives off a virtual heat.
And while another X-ray image of his cupped hand is more easily read as frail and deathly, two separate hand photograms show Morrisroe playfully pushing his hands on technique: one captures the pink outlined impression of a hand mimicking horns offset by a scumbled blue background and smoky foreground, while another captures the gesture of handgun outlined in white against black but with a receding depth inside the hand’s impression. And yet another grouping of photograms derive from vintage porn and other ephemera. Appearing like a negative when printed via his print process, the thinness of the original appropriated imagery allows for a doubling impression of both sides of the page, lending a further tactic of superimposition to Morrisroe’s image repertoire. And so the smiling shoulders-up headshot of a man in a sailor outfit also strikes poses with nothing but his cap on as the guise of the stock character is overlaid with the buff backside of the same page. Lively and quick, the surface potential of the image is imprinted with variation in Morrisroe’s photograms: a layout of women in bondage appears like a Constructivist photocollage in hot pink and blue; an assortment of candies and cocktail umbrellas glow iridescent as does a strewn collection of nail polish bottles; and the scissored impression of an image cut to ribbons takes on a painterly abstraction.
Also included among Morrisroe’s trading between abstract and more figurative photograms is a late composition that features the impression of an image of a classical statue of a male nude looking at himself in a mirror. Holding the reflective surface up before his face, the statue hides a smaller figure peering out from behind his legs. In Morrisroe’s hands the allegorical motif is accompanied by receding layers of planar abstraction, trailing behind the sepia-toned figure in gold, pink, and purple tints. A final dark circular cutout appears to the right of the figure, a black sun setting but also rising depending upon one’s perspective. From his early experience as a prostitute, to his roles as diva, performer, filmmaker, and artist, through to the real life eleventh hour of his illness and painful death, Morrisroe relied upon and plumbed a mercurial ingenuity to find plenitude in between the extremes of occupying various personae and an acute interiority.
(1) David Joselit, “Mark Morrisroe’s Photographic Masquerade,” Mark Morrisroe (1959-89): A Survey from the Estate October 15 – December 31, 1995, ICA Boston, p.66