Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door
The Art Institute of Chicago
1 June - 2 September 2013
Review by Una Dimitrijevic
Originally published by Brave New Art World, a website dedicated to art practice in Chicago.
Tracing the last 27 years of Cuban-born American artist Abelardo Morell’s career, this exhibition showcases over 100 photographs in two distinct gallery spaces. As a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Morell developed his teaching around the study of optics and early photographic technology. This inquisitiveness about the origins of photography and ability to marvel at simple optical illusions led him to create his own primitive, large-scale apparatus, mimicking the effects of early devices such as the camera obscura.
His sense of wonder at the visual world is evident in his work from the late eighties on the theme of childhood. After the birth of his son in 1986, Morell’s photography underwent a considerable shift as he began exploring the intimate world of the home from a child’s inquisitive perspective. Taking the low vantage point of his infant son, he would place his camera on the floor and photograph building blocks as if they were towering buildings (‘Toy Blocks’, 1987), or on top of a slide for a vertiginous view (‘Slide’, 1988). This period in his work seeks to rethink the way we view the everyday and instils a sense of wonder into the banal. Morell’s attentive pictures render the familiar strange and shatter our habitual perceptions of objects and spaces.
For a series of colour photographs which he produced whilst on residency at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2008, Morell once again alters our view of objects in their native space - this time turning his camera on artworks in a gallery. In ‘Nadelman/Hopper’ (2008), he places an Elie Nadelman sculpture in front of an Edward Hopper painting; the resulting photograph of a classical head gazing blankly through an open window is reminiscent of a Giorgio de Chirico style surrealist image. Two separate objects are brought together onto the same plane and a new reality is created.
Morell was equally interested in how art books influence our perception of art history. In a series created while in residence at the Boston Athenaeum, the photographer shows us how the images in art publications can be distorted, but equally how they can come to life. Books are part of a category which Morell calls ‘symbolic paper’, along with money and maps. Like photographs, maps employ graphic conventions to represent spatial information. In his pictures, Morell seeks to give these two-dimensional representations their own topography, transforming the plans into something akin to what they themselves represent.
Ever interested in the origins and technical bases of photography, Morell began constructing his own camera obscura at home by creating a small opening in a blacked-out window which would result in the projection of an upside-down image of the outside world into the darkened interior. To photograph the scene he initially made six to eight hour long exposures, eliminating all moving objects. Later, he reduced the exposure time and increased sharpness by turning to digital technology and using a diopter instead of a simple pinhole. Sometimes working in colour, away from home in Cuba, Venice or New York, and at times even rotating the external projections with the use of a prism, Morell’s ‘Camera Obscura’ series is varied, but each resulting photograph is a unique and unusual juxtaposition of interior furnishings and exterior architectural forms. These highly constructed photographs leave little to chance and create a gripping mediation between inner and outer space, privacy and exposure, emptiness and immersion.
In the final ‘Tent Camera’ series from 2010, we see Morell following the path of 19th century explorers of the American West, as he sets out to photograph the country’s open vistas. In Big Bend National Park in Texas, he began experimenting with a portable tent camera with a periscope lens on top which projected the outside landscape onto the ground under the tent. As with the ‘Camera Obscura’ series, Morell employed a second camera to photograph the resulting image. The ground trodden on and so often ignored becomes the backdrop to the grand landscapes. Almost an optical illusion, this technique forces the viewer to switch to and fro the two superimposed images, one of a three-dimensional scene, the other of a flat layer of rock, grass or cracked earth. The rough ground often appears as a textured layer, onto which the landscape is projected as if painted in impressionist or pointillist fashion.
In this eye-opening encounter with Abelardo Morell, we meet an artist capable of capturing the overlooked properties of everyday objects, and pushing and probing technical photographic material, not as a nostalgic act but as a way of exploring its possibilities to create something new. Visiting the first retrospective of Morell’s work in the last 15 years, we leave with the strong impression of having met an artist who deserves more renown.
Abelardo Morell: On Photography, Life, and Dancing
Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago