DENVER — Over little more than a decade Jenny Morgan has developed a set of powerful techniques that push paint to make the connection between the earthly and otherworldly more expressively felt. Morgan highlights the uncanny relationship between life and death through her flattening of the image, erasing context through the use of monochromatic backdrops, and applying paint thinly enough to allow the picture’s armature, pencil marks, and canvas appear. Death lurks in her compositions, and is brought to the surface by the treatment of paint and color in her exhibition SKINDEEP, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
Morgan’s dedicated interest in the occult and cycles of life and rebirth have been well documented. The artist and her interlocutors have identified various sources of inspiration for her work — the paintings of Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville, and Victorian memento mori. When I meander through this spare exhibition, I can’t help but also think of the psychologically charged portraiture from the ancient Roman outpost in Fayum, Egypt, a place and time (around 70 CE) where the realms of the material and spiritual intermingled. As with the Fayum portraits, Morgan’s portraits mean to simultaneously capture the individual’s earthly and otherworldly traits: using red to effect a fleshly quality, and blues to create shadows — resulting in an interplay of light sourced from the cosmos and carnal matter.
This exhibition, organized by MCA Denver curator Zoe Larkins, uses a pared down selection from the artist’s prolific output. Though Skin Deep is billed as Morgan’s first survey, there are important aspects of her practice that are not represented in the exhibition. Most notable is the absence of Morgan’s use of the skeleton, especially the human skull. Nevertheless, the selection on view builds a strong narrative driven by questions about how to locate the spiritual within the physical, material world. Morgan’s expansive and dedicated painting of the body stripped of skin and flesh, previously on view in the 2015 show at the Fulginiti Pavillion, would have contributed to this survey and complicated the very literal exhibition title, allowing for the most remarkable theme — the cycle of life and death — to surface with gusto.
The exhibition lays out a procession of groupings to describe varied aspects of Morgan’s work, beginning with a selection of portraits that amplify the fundamental importance corporeality plays. In this group, the predominance of reds — whether building the undertones of the earliest work on view, “The General’s Daughter” (2007), or heavily applied to mute the subject in “Dissolving Contract” (2008), or affecting a compression and thawing of the image as in “Don’t Leave Me Mother” (2008) — puts emphasis on the body in all its material aspects. Morgan’s technique of sanding the painted canvas to the point of rendering the figure charred, as in “The Source” (2009), recalls the scabbing process, which is essential to healing. The color red, so often used in painting to articulate fabrics, textiles, and architectures, here in Morgan’s work underpins and is intrinsic to her analysis of the body in terms of its physical condition.
Moving into the second gallery that contains very large portraits, the concept of aura interrelates the works on view. “True Blue,” a silkscreen from 2015 of Morgan’s regular sitter and muse, Syrie, exemplifies the ways in which the artist constructs an image: with a strong reliance on a gradation of colors to effect an almost psychedelic palette. This use of color builds an association with the occult and its concern with accessing a deep understanding of the individual’s path to their true self. In the case of “True Blue,” the subject’s aura — a form understood by psychics and alternative medics to be a sentient being’s hidden anatomy that manifests in color visible to only a select few — is manifested through the application of ethereal blue and green hues punctuated by her hand, which emanates orange light and gestures seductively towards her mouth.
Morgan’s treatment of the painting surface arrives at a new state of complexity and nuance in “Breakthrough Sharona” (2014). This formulation seems to abide by different criteria than most of Morgan’s work. Portions of the surface are raised, specifically the outlines of beams forming the sitter’s halo. As with other paintings in that gallery, the subject’s eyes appear glazed. This technique of varying the topography of the painting, in combination with the sanded faces on view, and the placement of the figure against a monochromatic backdrop, develops a new sort of funerary imagery for the living. The life force that animates the skin becomes visible.
The aging body plays a fundamental role in the exhibition’s palpable, overarching narrative of the existence of a life force that moves through bodies, from infancy to old age. “Mentor” (2012) is a full-frontal nude, large-scale portrait, whose luminous quality is executed through the use of whites with blue undertones that are scoured and sanded. The face of the “Mentor” is stripped of hair follicles and lines; the traces of time are muted and replaced with the indicia of collapse between the material, earthly realm and the ether. This work and the painting in the first gallery, the portrait of performer Justin Bond, “Mother’s Pearls” (2009), reveals Morgan’s use of a technique that matures in her later work: fine lines drawn across the image, provoking thoughts about not just the passing of time, but of bending time. Morgan has woven into her painting structures that trigger associations with theories referencing her own spirituality, such as a belief in reincarnation.
Morgan’s obvious concern with and inquiry into the subject of mortality is announced in “You Only Live Once” (2015), which dominates the fourth and last room in this exhibition. This large self-portrait commands our attention through the battle being waged within the gaze it demands of the viewer. In this painting, the intensity of Morgan’s direct expression jockeys with the taut posture of the infant she anchors with one arm, hanging from her, parallel to her, with charged energy. It is as if Morgan and the infant are two aspects of one fragmented psyche — one confronting the viewer and the other indifferent to her. The infant expresses its presence through the act of grasping a strand of Morgan’s hair, but the connection between the two facets of a single character feels indifferent, suggesting the upending of conventional pairings of woman and infant that has in painting, historically, alluded to a romantic notion of motherhood, cycles of life, and a godly inspired cosmic order. This painting opens the floodgates to rereading the other pairings of portraits in the room. Morgan uses the genre of self-portraiture in a variety of compositional structures that conjure complex psychological states: pairing her own image with an infant or a doppelgänger to set up a set of binaries that unravel how we think about identity as a single, unitary state. She describes the emergence of the individual as a material being already completely both physically and spiritually interconnected with all that it sees, and does not see.