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High fidelity Malcolm Morley

Malcolm Morley was an early practitioner of superrealist painting. He then won the first Turner Prize in 1984 after having moved to a looser style of brushwork. In recent years his work has reached a new maturity in what he calls his “fidelity painting”.

There are many Malcolm Morleys. Ultimately, of course, there is only one, and yet the unity of this singular painter emerges only from a survey of the many. Writers usually begin with the pictures of ocean liners he painted in 1965–6. Postcards were his sources, and Morley shocked the art world with his fidelity to the look of mass-produced photographic imagery. Pigeonholed as an inventor of photorealism, he called himself a superrealist instead.

The superrealist Morley began to change in the early 1970s. Though his development was erratic, with many lateral moves and a few about-faces, it was unrelenting. There was a tropical Morley, who filled jungles of heavily worked paint with splashy tigers and macaws. For a brief moment, a pattern-making Morley crowded the canvas with nearly identical images of charging legionnaires. By the late 1980s he had become the quasi-abstract Morley, a painter of hectic, high-keyed canvases in which cathedrals and other solid things dissolved into snarls of colour. As the 1990s began, his drips, smears and high-speed streaks of pigment gave way to calmer effects. Slowly, he became a hard-edged painter of ships and aeroplanes, yet the superrealist devoted to the meticulous, obsessive transcription of photographic images did not reappear. Then, in 2002, he did.

Since the 1980s, Morley had based his oil paintings on his own watercolours. The picture that brought him back to superrealism, Man, Boy and Donkey 2002, originated in a newspaper photograph of a scene in Afghanistan. Yet the author of this work is not identical to the Morley who produced the ocean liner canvases of the mid-1960s, or the even more fiendishly photographic New York Postcards of the early 1970s. Painterly generalisation endows the man, the boy and the donkey with an elegant sketchiness, and the background of this image is quasi-abstract. Morley’s old precision reappeared full-force in House in Brooklyn 2003, a picture of a tenement in a state of collapse. Car Crash 2003 shows racing cars piling up amid clouds of smoke and exhaust fumes. Theory of Catastrophe 2004 presents a variation on this subject: cars and trucks in the aftermath of an horrendous pile-up on a motorway. For other motifs, he turned to sports. In Racer 2004 a downhill skier leans into a sharp turn. Bat is about to connect with baseball in Batter’s Box 2004, and in Backstroke 2004 a swimmer’s goggled face emerges from foam. The theme of automotive mishaps returned in 2005 in a canvas entitled, strangely enough, The Art of Painting. A diptych of sorts, it shows one cluster of crashing racing cars in its upper half and another cluster below. Though the painting is about disaster, its title suggests that this is not its only subject.

Having insisted that his art is superrealist, not photorealist, Morley gave it another label: “fidelity painting”. At first, one assumes the obvious: he means fidelity to a photographic source – the postcards that provided him with images of ocean liners, or the sports photographs he reproduced in recent years. But what about everything in between – the canvases that are based on photographs only indirectly, or not at all? To what is that work faithful? A plausible answer is that Morley’s paintings, whatever their style or source, are faithful to the act of seeing, and thus keep faith with an early modern maxim: paint what you see, not what you know.

What he knows best of all is how it feels to see, to make sense of the visible world, especially those bits of it to be found in pictures. Yet there is more to his knowledge, as he suggests when he says: “It’s one thing to see it, and quite another to see it and paint it.” For Morley, his awareness of his seeing is not complete until he has struggled to transpose the experience to canvas – struggled and failed, as he must, given the impossibility of representing the dynamic process of seeing in the immobile medium of painting.

Morley’s fidelity painting cannot be faithful to what he sees, any more than the art of his hero Cézanne could be faithful to what he saw. Like Cézanne’s, his art can be faithful only to what he knows. But why is that worth doing? Answers emerge from a look at the paint in the most photographic of his recent canvases. Close up to The Art of Painting, for example, we see imagery dissolving into colour as willingly as it does in his messiest paintings of the 1980s. We see, as well, that the distinction between the abstract and the representational is arbitrary: sooner or later, we see ourselves seeing. For, as it turns out, all the various Morley’s are made into a singular Morley by one persistent purpose: to get us to be as self conscious as he has been at every stage of his career. And he hopes that the self-consciousness achieved in the exemplary act of looking at art will carry over to the rest of our lives.