By ALISSA GUZMAN February, 2020
Walking into the exhibition at SFA Projects on the Lower East Side, literally titled Birds and Flowers, Vases and Windows, I was immediately confronted by a large vase, approximately 4 feet tall, surrounded by a field of bright yellow and adorned with a tangled array of plant tentacles and trendy Swiss cheese leaves. A cross between an intentionally messy ode to contemporary pop culture and a delicately thoughtful study of traditional Chinese genre painting, these clashing elements are the central ingredients of the exhibition. Grouped into clusters of various sizes and surfaces, the installation of paintings moves seamlessly between the historical “windows” of vases depicting birds and flowers, and the more literal windows of modern life, underscoring a duality of meaning as the work vacillates between the contemporary and the traditional.
A solo exhibition by Xennial painter Jeffrey Morabito, we come across parings that ask viewers to consider the similarities between tennis balls, airplane windows, and sunsets, while a strange menagerie of animals peer at us from the confinement of their vessels—everything from traditional birds to an ominous turkey vulture, a quizzical owl, and one elegant goose. There is a constant push/pull between gazing outward onto a landscape, a city, an object, and being pulled inward, as objects and abstraction obstruct the apparent simplicity of a “view.” In one particularly perspective-warping painting, we gaze into a seductive blue sky full of swirling clouds before realizing that we are looking at a reflection of the sky through the windshield of a hybrid Prius. Look at the painting long enough and you realize the silhouette of the driver inside is actually watching you.
Hybridity isn’t just a conceptual theme throughout the exhibition. It’s also a material one, where Morabito’s technique uses visual tricks similar to his play between objects and windows, as each surface feels like it was either scraped down to its foundation or built up from endless tubes of paint. In the intimate piece L.A., the sprawling grid of Los Angeles at night is depicted in just a few careful lines of orange, like a city on fire or ignited by its own immense power grid. As a fragment of a memory or an imagined landscape, there is a seductive quality to the painting that draws viewers closer and closer. A work like South Pacific blends together Morabito’s opposing techniques, resulting in a compelling abstraction of teals and blues that provokes our imagination like a Rorschach test. We become almost too aware, as the artist clearly intends, that what we see within the frame is our own projection.
Images rendered through an excess of paint have an edge that feels both irreverent and indulgent. There’s a sense of rebellion built from the mess of impasto that goes well beyond formalism and becomes a sort of “fuck you”—to painting, society, and perhaps even viewers’ expectations—that resonates as a necessary expression of our time. With so many cultural systems imploding in the wake of the last decade, Morabito seems to suggest taking a hard look at our surroundings, asking us to peer through countless frames, literal and metaphorical, at a complex world of his own conjuring. WM
“Birds and Flowers, Vases and Windows” continues at SFA Projects (131 Chrystie St, New York) through March 1st. The gallery will host a panel discussion Saturday, February 29th at 3PM titled “Confronting Yesterday’s Traditions in
Today’s Cultural Diaspora”
Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.