By Robert Cozzolino
Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings Minneapolis Institute of Art
Clarence Morgan’s recent drawings present a duet he has performed across time. A call and response, statement and refrain, improvisations by one hand answered in another. Each voice bears a distinctive timbre, articulated boldly so that there is no question about the space they claim in the collaboration. Sizzling lines writhe as they whip around in perpetual motion behind bright girders of color. The two hands, the paired voices belong to Morgan. Drawings made thirty years ago (1988) form the ground on which he had added a layer fresh from the vantage point of 2018. Morgan’s own past provides the matrix upon which he adds, subtracts, overlays, obfuscates, and paradoxically reveals. These new superimposed forms set the dormant marks alight, and they reanimate in response to possibilities offered by difference. Harmony, dissonance, these allusions come forth from the juxtaposed marks as do tensions brought by relative aggression, whispered phrases, percussive battering, and the resonant hum of a held chord.
This approach is a natural impulse from an artist for whom drawing is “intellectual labor.” Here it reveals emotional labor too. Abstraction is too often understood as form and materiality alone – that modernist dogma that insists that nothing outside the optical content is relevant. Morgan’s process reveals how an artist’s decisions expand the meanings of their art. Every choice is meaningful and his impulse to engage with his younger self through drawing opens up innumerable interpretive possibilities. Morgan’s act is inherently self-reflexive, an ongoing mutating self-portrait, evolving with each engagement with a drawing from the past.
At face value, this is not an alien way of working for Morgan. In previous works on hardboard and canvas Morgan layered the surfaces with patterns, marks, collaged bits of shapes, skeletal geometry, organic forms, suggesting openings and skins. His imagery was expansive and dynamic, suggesting a swirling vortex into space and outward rising towards the viewer. Each appeared like a new living ecosystem. These new drawings bear Morgan’s additive, eccentric geometry developed through thoughtful refinement and joyful improvisation. They suggest perpetual growth, a garden returning after being dormant, excavation after burial. What do they unearth in their exposed state? What kind of dialogue with the past and with the self is possible here?
We don’t expect self-portraits to materialize as abstractions any more than we take realist self-portraits to be solely about physical appearances. To compose over a drawing one made in the past is to look back with intension, to meditate on who that person was who made the marks and where they were in life when the drawing appeared. Morgan’s superimposed structures made in bold solid colors painted between graphite borders feel grounded and solid compared to the skittering, anxious, chaotic energy of the underlying gestures. One or the other would not feel complete. Together they bring out unexpected aspects of the other, layered and complex, echoing one another in gesture but changed, united in personality but differing in priorities. They are by the same hand in different moments, changed and with new inflections, one having lived through much more.
Morgan’s drawings bear associations embodied in the history of manuscripts and a perpetual search for knowledge. They read like palimpsests, an earlier text scraped down from its parchment support in order to allow for a new passage or imagery to take its place. As with Morgan’s drawings, these traces of the past are often never fully eradicated. They seep through to appear as ghosts, asserting their presence behind the new. That emanation might add energy to the present, a dynamic electricity that shows what is possible through transformation, change, and growth.