Rebecca Morgan: Cabin Fever
April 12 through May 26, 2012
In her solo debut two years ago, Rebecca Morgan's almost life-size, nude self-portraits (all graphite on paper) found a fittingly cold home on the unfinished concrete of Gasser Grunert's deep-pit-of-a-space. The darkly inflected scenes of country life—Henry David Thoreau she is not—surrounded by the severe urban geometry of the gallery underscored the artist's feelings of ambivalence toward both places she calls home: rural Pennsylvania (her point of origin) and Brooklyn, NY (her current location). Caught in a perpetual state of alterity, Morgan self-identifies as a bumpkin in her work in order to deconstruct this stereotype articulated as either slack-jawed, good-natured innocent (think Kenneth on TV's 30 Rock, Brandine's brood on The Simpsons, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, etc.) or menacing inbred mutant (think the toothless, hooch-drinkin' deviants in Deliverance or any number of hillbilly horror flicks). This strangely persistent cultural icon not only allows Morgan to explore her own personal growing pains but also issues of gender, class, and place in savvy syntheses of 'high' and 'low'—both realistic and cartoon—informed by her smorgasbord of idols from Rubens to R. Crumb.
In Cabin Fever at Asya Geisberg, Morgan's second solo show, the weird goings-on-in-the-woods à la David Lynch of two years prior have given way to a pastel, Hallmark-card malaise. For this self-proclaimed chromophobe, the foray into color is a welcome development as is the sophisticated mingling of graphite crosshatching with delicate, oil on panel brushwork; the woman has a sensitive touch. A few images come close to flat-out repeats of earlier work, but they're altered just enough to keep things interesting. The most obvious example of this is I Love New York, named for the ubiquitous souvenir T-shirt and the only thing Morgan is wearing. It is a seated iteration of the 2009 standing composition. That said, the recent version is more tense, a restless Morgan ready to pounce out of the picture plane even though she sports the dour apprehension of the farm folk in Grant Wood's American Gothic (1930).
The overall effect of the exhibition is of a family portrait gallery, the bulk of work being upper body shots of Morgan, and bumpkin stand-ins for Morgan, sprouting from shoulder-high foliage. Enveloped like Bernini's 17th-century statue of Daphne (with Apollo in hot pursuit), it's unclear whether these buxom gals are communing with or being consumed by nature, being nurtured or restricted by their down-home environment. Morgan is characteristically of two minds on the matter. In Prize Jugs, the county fair contest for harvest's best dovetails with the beauty pageant. With a blue award ribbon pinned to her head, Morgan offers up her unaugmented breasts which contrast with the more lascivious, silicone tits in the similar Blue Ribbon Bumpkin. These tongue-in-cheek, porn-inspired objectifications trace Morgan's 'bad girl' artistic lineage to Lisa Yuskavage. Alternately, roots run deep connecting Morgan to her nourishing family tree and a different artistic predecessor, her Great Grandma, living in a time and place inhospitable to womens' artistic development in Self-Portrait (Wearing Dead Great Grandmother's Painting Hat Initialed by my Dead Grandfather, Dead Grandmother, and Dead Father).
For Morgan, city life is equally double-edged. While rewarding artistic effort, the demanding drain has taken its toll in a cartoon of the artist as a zombie-eyed, low-wage worker at Utrecht. As bedraggled as Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters (1885), this moon-faced bumpkin is among a bevy of imaginary grotesques that are a therapeutic staple of the artist's practice (which even includes ceramic kitsch figurines). She lets loose with teeth like shattered glass set in raw, puffy gums framed by drool, pimples, pug noses, lady mustaches, and unibrows, things counterpoint to the surgically enhanced, picture-perfect bodies represented by the media. Is this team pride, preemptive self-deprecation, an indictment of prejudice, or a middle finger to propriety? The lens moves in multiple directions.
Morgan also finds inspiration in the yokels of yesteryear as affectionately portrayed by Adriaen Brouwer, Frans Hals, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Of particular interest are rituals of relief such as getting one's drink on at ye olde alehouse. An update of 'the peasant at play,' The Smoker is one of the best pieces in the exhibition. Here, the look of anticipatory glee on Morgan's face as she's about to suck back some wacky tobaccy is reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell kid on Christmas day. However, this stopgap intoxication doesn't seem to compare with the junk food al fresco of the largest and most dynamic piece, Homecoming Picnic, a nod to Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863). Au natural and kneeling on a hand-knitted afghan, Morgan's inner duality comes to life as her doppelgänger dangles Cheetos over her look-alike's open mouth. Lips, nose, and fingers are stained with orange powder, a detail obviously based on extensive research. Let's hope Morgan continues her research and to crack wise on her own internal frictions as well as those in the landscape of seemingly endless American cultural extremes.
Kris Scheifele is an artist and writer based in New York. She received an MFA from Pratt Institute and a BFA and BA from Cornell University. She also attended Skowhegan and was a 2009 Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant recipient. Her artwork has been exhibited at CUE Art Foundation, PS122 Gallery, 92YTribeca, and Janet Kurnatowski. krisscheifele.comview all articles from this author