"The Best Art In The World"
Kristen Morgin: “Messages to my Twenty Year Old Self”
at Marc Selwyn Fine Art
By GEORGE MELROD, AUG. 2015
Alternately masterful, amusing and oddly moving, Kristen Morgin’s recent summer show at Marc Selwyn Fine Art evoked a range of art world precursors, from early Pop Art (Lichtenstein’s prosaic comic book snippets and Jasper Johns’ iconic trompe l’oeil recreation of a Savarin coffee can stuffed with paintbrushes), to the willfully grungy assemblage works of George Herms and Ed Kienholz. But with a rueful, autobiographical twist: titled “Messages to my Twenty Year Old Self,” this deeply personal show was more inspired by Morgin’s childhood self than anything from art history. At first glance, the gallery seemed to present discrete compositions created from a trove of childhood detritus, as might be found decades later, sifting through a family basement. However, for all their seeming artlessness, all the works on display were in fact skillfully crafted from unfired clay, festooned with paint, graphite, ballpoint pen, and the rare appropriated prop (a folding chair, a wooden stepladder). Thus, a casual visitor might have easily breezed through the show thinking it an exercise in thrift shop assemblage.
These works are a different language from the works Morgin became known for: distressed, crumbling, lifesized ceramic shells of objects such as musical instruments and vintage cars. But if less materially raw, these recent works are also quite abject in their way. It is a testament to Morgin’s talent that she pulls this off so deftly, simulating everything from faded (hilariously evocative) 1970s album covers marred with scribbles and stickers, to old scraps of cardboard to familiar, battered paperbacks. To anyone who has ever had to return to a childhood home to sort through the forgotten scraps of one’s youth, the loaded emotional associations are as musty and redolent as the soiled old objects themselves. Superficially, these forlorn remnants suggest more trash than treasures, as forgotten scraps of kitschy 1970s pop culture that are inevitably larded with forgotten, immature, naïve, and at times overheated personal meanings.
All of the works are deliberately understated, so much so that one is tempted to pass them by. But leaning in to examine them in detail reveals a panoply of extraordinary details. Many of the period “album covers” for instance, are expertly rendered and marked with cartoon stickers, or marred with ballpoint pen scribbles, and often, wear from the circular edge of the vinyl inside. Nat Man and Robins (2014), presumably an album of the Best of Nat King Cole, has a sticker turning Nat’s name into “Nat-Man,” along with dual stickers of Robin the Boy Wonder, and a eyemask doodled in ballpoint pen, which turns the smiling crooner into a childlike version of the Caped Crusader. Other vintage albums by Mick Jagger, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, John Travolta, Neil Diamond, and Cher, among other ‘70s idols, are similarly, ostensibly defaced/enhanced with stickers and doodlings; in one work, nine such album covers are arranged in a grid, their faces representing the faces of the members of the Brady Brunch in the credits of the famously idealized TV series. A few recreations of comic books – “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and a “Classics Illustrated” version of Frankenstein – are similarly remade by kiddie stickers and realistic blotches: again, all self-deprecatingly crafted out of painted, unfired clay.
The numerous works replicating swatches of cardboard, cut from shipping boxes, and adorned with B&W photos from movie stills, or other doodads, or lettering for roadside signage – e.g., “Free Kittens” or “Car$ for Cash” – give good idea of the demoralizing world these works seem relics of. The cheerful, bearded blue Smurf sticker affixed to a soiled, flattened Starbucks cup – Cup-O-Smurf (2014) – is as grimly eloquent a reenvisioning of a late 20th century amphora as one can imagine. The works that extend that facility into modest, still-life assemblages of small objects are, likewise, palpably forlorn. In one, a little Smurf figure reappears atop a beat-up child’s violin and a battered paperback edition of “Bladerunner.” Mickey Dearest (2014), posits a Mickey Mouse head draped in a faux pearl necklace atop a standing hardback volume of the infamous memoir by Joan Crawford’s daughter, “Mommie Dearest” – one can image a child innocently composing it with no idea of the abuses described within. Or is this work a warning sent back in time from the older, wiser Morgin to the younger?
Untitled (Tweety Bird) (2014), which offers a dirty Tweety Bird toy with a coil of string and a block of wood, almost suggests a lynching. Message to My 20 Year Old Self (2014), presents a simple stick figure set in a pedestal of a filthy Bumble Bee tuna can, with a sad face drawn on a cracked, upside-down teacup for a head. A Message to My Twenty Year Old Me: Sleep Tight (2015), the most affecting work in the show, offers a sleeping child toy lying under an open Penguin Classics paperback of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” while a plastic press-puppet of Felix The Cat lies splayed atop its spine. The intimations of sexual awakening and adulterous excitement and despair in the book seem a world away from the innocence of the doll, the open book used here as a comforting blanket for the sleeping child below. By establishing a dialogue between the more knowing world of the adult and the naïve, romantic fantasies of her younger self, Morgin has created a kind of elegy to the abandoned idealizations of youth. It’s heady stuff. Flirting with nostalgia, these works end up going for something much deeper – and, inevitably, sadder. The ideals she addresses may have long since dissipated, but in Morgin’s capable, witty, sympathetic hands, the material of clay, even thus disguised, proves a bracingly resilient vessel. WM
George Melrod has written about art and culture for over 25 years, for a wide range of publications, such as Art & Antiques, Art in America, ARTnews, American Ceramics, Sculpture, Los Angeles, Details, and VOGUE. He moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1998. Since 2006, he has been the founding editor of art ltd. magazine, where you can still find him today. He has also been known to write humor, screenplays, and fiction.view all articles from this author