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Malcolm Morley’s paintings at Sperone Westwater are sumptuous, ingenuous, and ridiculous retellings of rather grim actualities. In these works, I get the pomp and circumstance of war and conquest: the varicolored heraldry on fully armored knights relayed across shields, crests, and banners, and the visual pageantry of ancient wooden galleys’ semaphoric displays. All of this is lit up by a chromolithographic palette that makes all the colors — but the yellows in particular — so peerlessly bright that the world outside the paintings feels encased in shadow. Though the tools of medieval warfare are here: the destriers, lances, and crossbows, the swords and shields, and the knights are all posed like children’s toys. And then taking a page from the surrealism book, to make the figures more innocuous, such as in the piece “Starry, Starry Knight” (2017), Morley tosses them into a sky where they wheel about, jousting without ever spilling blood.
Morley leans on the idiom of surrealism throughout the show. The piece “Piazza d’Italia with French Knights” (2017) looks like he plopped the knights down in a setting painted by Giorgio de Chirico. But Morley didn’t stick to that script. In paintings like “Hobby Horse” (2015), which is my favorite of the exhibition, he has not one Trojan Horse, but two, one on top of the other, plus a biblical pillar of fire and a cartoonishly mangled three-stage rocket falling out of the spangled sky — because why the hell not? It’s like story time with a young child who hasn’t learned yet to pay attention to narrative continuity and historical verisimilitude. I walk through the exhibition thinking that Morley, who died just earlier this year, must have had great fun making these paintings.
The pleasure that Morley took in rendering the regalia of war is a kind of sublimation of the horror underneath. Morley had lived through the Nazi Blitz of London during the second World War. Being fully encased in a suit of armor and able to fly seems like precisely the kind of protection a child might want after seeing an entire building reduced to ash, and then living through the aftermath. In the modern world, peace does tend to be fragile and our willingness to engage in armed, organized hostility is too robust. Morley’s exhibition, titled Tally-ho, reprises the cry made by Royal Air Force fighter pilots during World War II when they were about to face the enemy. Morley engaged the monster of warfare by making it unreal, its dramatic personae brilliantly painted, wooden figurines that could be later placed in a toy box with the lid shut.