Mark Morrisroe always yearned for fame. Before he died in 1989 at age 30, the punk performer and photographer worked zealously toward achieving celebrity, intermingling his intimate pleasures and pains into his Polaroids, films, zines, and drag shows. Morrisroe was notorious in the club scene of his native Boston, but he never saw critical renown in New York. Over the last several years, however, critics and curators have started to pay more attention to Morrisroe, whose protean production in many ways pioneered the interdisciplinary mode of the artist as a performance of attitude.
In Mark Morrisroe: Works from 1982–85, at Alexander and Bonin, the artist’s eight C-prints demonstrate this artistic dexterity as well as his singularity of focus. Installed in an intimate downstairs space within the gallery’s new Tribeca location, these works are photographic in material, painterly in aesthetic, and completely performative in concept.
Morrisroe often told tall tales that spun his relationships to the famous or the notorious. As a child, he lived near Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler; as a teenager and young adult, he perpetuated the myth that he was de Salvo’s son. In high school in the mid-1970s, he and a classmate created a zine, Dirt Magazine, which published fantastical rumors and gossip about local and national celebrities. By then Morrisroe had moved to Boston and was supporting himself as a prostitute. One night something went wrong and a john shot him in the back; he survived but walked with a noticeable limp for the rest of his life.
Later, Morrisroe enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and quickly became core to a group of students dismissive of convention, absorbed by punk music, and empowered to create space outside the mainstream. Nan Goldin and Pat Hearn were part of this circle, and though they each later established themselves as central to Downtown New York in the 1980s, Morrisroe remained marginal to it — too punk to be chic.
Alexander and Bonin’s installation begins with “La Mome Piaf (Pat and Thierry)” (1982), an image of Hearn clad in only an accordion and embraced from behind by a faceless male, tilting her head back and smiling blissfully with her eyes closed, leaning against a doorway. Hearn’s body is powerfully erotic in this image, defiantly bare and restful but resistant to the male’s grasp. As the eye drifts around the sensually grainy surface of the photograph, it is drawn to the margins, where Morrisroe signed, dated, and drew on the image in scribbled cursive alongside scratches of reds and pinks. It’s this lithe, marginal script that activates the work, transforming it from purely romantic to raw with the dynamism of scrawling brushwork.
Morrisroe’s painterly approach to photographic material is revealed in the remaining works, many of which were created via his invented “sandwich” method, in which he’d take multiple negatives and stack them together to print one image. Morrisroe was completely unprecious with his negatives, emphasizing their flaws as perfections. By embellishing and aggrandizing his images using words and color, Morrisroe more than alters them: He reconstructs their reality according to his own. Portraits — such as “Janet Massomian,” (1982),“John Stefanelli in the Bath,” (1985) or “Kacie Stetson” (1984) — aren’t impressions but performances of a person, place, and time as told by Morrisroe (he often inscribed dates and locations). A snapshot is idealized as a screen test, as in “Baby Steffenelli” (1985). An intimate moment between two people is interrupted by movie posters and newsprint, as in “Untitled (John S. and Jonathan)” (1985). As much as he documented his surroundings, Morrisroe also recast these recordings as stylized visions evocative of his cultural moment.
“American Beauty” (1985), a still life with a mood and tonality evocative of Robert Frank, includes a portion of an American flag, a bottle of nail polish, and a human foot stepping onto a pedestal. It’s a brooding allusion to Morrisroe’s life, ended much too soon from AIDS-related complications, but lived to fullest on its own terms. Installed beneath the staircase, “American Beauty” is exaggerated with doodled stars and streamer-like scribbles, infusing it with an interdisciplinary immediacy that feels both classic and contemporary. With this fusion of methods and materials, Morrisroe’s work, long obscured under the shadow of stars like Hearn or Goldin, is due its time in the critical spotlight.
Mark Morrisroe: Works from 1982–85 continues at Alexander and Bonin (47 Walker Street) through December 22.