Pioneer Works, an experimental playground at the reaches of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, is perhaps the perfect site for photographer Matthew Morrocco’s playfully heady, avant-garde project Orchid: RGB, curated by David Everitt Howe.
Orchid: RGB is framed as a meditation on the medium of photography itself. At first flush, the show is a radical aesthetic gesture, especially in relation to the visual and thematic world the artist has cultivated thus far. Morrocco’s practice investigates the continuum of the photographic medium in relation to technological and social history — the dappled light of 16th century portraiture, the conception of the silver nitrate mirror, and traditions of gay male portraiture — all dovetail Morrocco’s expansive viewpoint.
With the Orchid project, Morrocco turns these signature motifs on their head, then removes the heads, and bodies too. Photographs, like humans, require a small list of essentials to exist: light, which the naked eye perceives as an image of colors, and a way to convey that image. The simplistic elements of color and light are only the beginning of the constantly unfurling thematic interest of the Orchid project.
Rainbow gradients liberally fill the gallery space. This includes a suite of portraits featuring a genderless, nameless figure in an array of colors, loosely referred to as “Orchid,” that Morrocco animates in a morphsuit. By design, the suit obscures the entire surface of Morrocco’s body, including the face, effectively removing the human body from conversation. Suddenly, other concerns and ideas are allowed to rush in. We are left with unconventional monochrome portraits, evoking everything from the standardized RGB color system for digital display, to the Color Field paintings of Ellsworth Kelly.
One has to wonder, especially in relation to Morrocco’s exercise of consciously removing the human body from these portraits, whether the body is a distraction, that can even be imposed to obscure other gestures from visibility, as expressed in queer narratives. Ellsworth Kelly was gay, but his sexual identity was spoken of much less often than more contemporary gay male artists, who grounded their practice in representing bodies, such as Robert Mapplethorpe or Peter Hujar.
When I asked Morrocco about the unruly “non-body” of the Orchid figure, the artist responded:
As queer people, we are too often told that our history is rooted in the discovery of sex and the body. To make art about covering, hiding, and yet still being proud of my body, is a radical act. For feminist and queer art to be relegated solely to the realm of the body is yet another way that our ideas and thoughts are marginalized. I wanted to blend the world of ideas with the corporeal world rooted in the use of my body, but more importantly steeped in ideas of history, politics, sociality, and economy.
I was especially moved by how Morrocco sheds his preciousness as he zips into the morphsuit, striking a variety of uninhibited classical poses. “Orchid” does, after all, cheekily refer to cryptocurrency that allows people to surf the internet undetected, and it seems as if this figure embodies that crypto power in its blind self-possession. This is a thrilling break in the landscape of gay male photography, especially when its forefathers often coveted a sexualized human body, ones that often-observed conventional standards of beauty.
The Pioneer Works show marks the beginning of the wily Orchid character, and Morrocco’s play with the world of color and light. The next installment, Orchid: Seasons at CRUSHCURATORIAL, adds ‘time’ to the list of concepts Morrocco seeks to complicate in our evolving land and cyber-scape of images. True to its name, Orchid: Seasons will flout the typical six-week gallery show cycle, in favor of four 10-day shows, evolving with each passing season. “Summer” ends this month, with the ‘Fall’ iteration of Orchid: Seasons opening in early September.
Orchid: RGB continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through August 26. Orchid: Seasons – Fall opens at CRUSHCURATORIAL (526 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on September 6.