Art review: Nyeema Morgan grants permission to reimagine iconic works

It really isn’t hard to grasp the gist of “Nyeema Morgan: Soft Power.” Hard margins. (until May 14), the show that kicks off the spring art season at the Grant Wahlquist Gallery in downtown Portland. At least superficially. Even those unfamiliar with art history will recognize iconic paintings such as DaVinci’s “Last Supper” and Michelangelo’s “David” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Hokusai’s “The Wave.”

Morgan partially obscures these works with a layer of frosted Plexiglas into which she etches phrases that appear randomly truncated on the surface. So, for example, above the “David”, the phrase “Permission to be master” is broken up this way:


A string of LED lights illuminates the liminal space between the image and the Plexi. Morgan then enshrines each piece with a classic frame cast in resin using a mold she created from an intricate frame she sculpted. Sometimes it leaves extra pieces of resin that could have been cut sticking out from the edges. Finally, she applies gold leaf, but only partially so that the creamy resin remains clearly visible. The gold leaf can sometimes invade the Plexiglas itself, further obscuring the image and the message.

You can walk around the gallery and decipher the phrases and how they connect or refer to each image, then congratulate yourself on your intelligence and walk down the stairs to Monument Square to continue your day. It would be a colossal mistake (and a shame) because you’ll have come to that second-floor gallery above Hi-Fi Donuts in vain and only fed your ego.

The more time we spend with Morgan’s works, the more they begin to reveal a myriad of ideas about art, its contexts and contradictions, and our own assumptions about what art is and is not. We also begin to understand how our own perceptions, filtered through the reality we live in, give meaning to the works that neither the original artist nor the person appropriating this image could have foreseen.

I will only attempt to deconstruct a few elements here, because even after viewing the exhibition, new revelations pursued me outside the gallery like a persistent toddler repeating the same question: “But why? – until nausea. It’s really a good thing.

First, the accusations against conceptual art are endless: it’s cold, sterile, pretentious, more concerned with obtuse intellectual ideas than with beauty. This show proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. Materially, these objects are sensual and dazzling in an almost hedonistic and lavish way. The lights, the reflectivity, the gold leaf, the decorativeness of the frames…these are irresistibly seductive.

Which, of course, does not prevent them from being intellectual. Morgan draws inspiration from artist Adrian Piper, in particular from a 1983 essay in which she writes, “The right to free speech is permission, granted by the state, to engage in certain activities.

Nyeema Morgan, “Soft Power. Hard Margins. (1987)”, 2020, 18.5 x 15.5 x 3 in, based on “Immersion (Piss Christ)” by Andres Serrano

Artists throughout the millennia and in all mediums and art forms have challenged the “permissions” granted by the state, institutions and society in terms of what is considered “acceptable”, “beautiful”, etc. . Who can forget Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph “Immersion (Piss Christ)” – a plastic crucifix submerged in a pot of Serrano’s own urine – which, among other controversial works, led to self-righteous budget cuts at the National Endowment for the Arts?

In a sense, Morgan’s works grant artists a whole host of new permissions. Unsurprisingly, “Piss Christ” is overlaid with the words “Permission to Be Blasphemous” here. From a boundary-pushing artist like Morgan, one might expect some of these permissions: “Permission to Buck Convention” (on Marcel Duchamp’s Upside-Down Urinal), “Permission to Abandon Conventional Figuration” (on “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso) and “Permission to Be Masochistic” (to Chris Burden’s “Shoot”, a performance piece in which a friend shot him in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle).

Nyeema Morgan, “Soft power. Hard margins. (1498)”, 2020, 31 x 43 x 3 in, after “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

Others simply acknowledge accepted artistic conventions, such as self-portraiture (“Permission to Be Self Referential” on Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”) or religious painting (“Permission to Be Pious” on DaVinci’s “Last Supper”) . And some permissions are painfully sweet, as in “Permission to Indulge in the Resplendent Beauty of Love” (overlaid on Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”) and “Permission to Empathize” (on Dorothea Lange’s indelible portrait “Migrant Mother, Nipomo , California”).

But some of the works get complicated when considered in the context of contemporary times. It’s impossible to look at Munch’s “Scream,” over which Morgan overlays “Permission to Recognize the Horror of Everyday Existence,” and not think of the devastation, inhumanity, and deadly arrogance of war. in Ukraine.

Nyeema Morgan, “Soft Power. Hard Margins. (1930)”, 2020, 28 x 22 x 3 in, based on “American Gothic” by Grant Wood

Two books were frighteningly evocative of the underhanded manipulation of so-called “American values” that were the stock in trade of the former US presidential administration: “Permission to Objectively American Provincialism” (“American Gothic” by Grant Wood) and “Permission to Be Nostalgic for American Provincialism”. (“Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth). “Permission to Express Political Dissent” (on Picasso’s “Guernica”) is a chilling reminder of how Russia, China and other totalitarian regimes silence free speech.

There is also the function of the frame to consider. Framing a work commemorates it and gives it credibility and legitimacy. Morgan then clearly poses questions about how specific artistic canons are “framed”: who grants this imprimatur? What makes this genre or work worthy of reverence? What is a masterpiece? The golden frames, in particular, also make the works more “precious”. What and who gives them this value?

It’s hard to deny the irony of framing certain works this way: for example, Duchamp’s urinal or his “Nude Descending a Staircase”, or even a Monet sunset, for that matter. At the time of their creation, they were considered outrageous and transgressive. Yet giving them this preciousness practically integrates the concepts and techniques that gave them birth. It is less a critique of the art itself than the fickleness of art critics, collectors and audiences. Today, we think Impressionist paintings are “pretty,” and Chris Burden’s “Shoot” probably wouldn’t elicit much more than an eye roll.

Even the way the show is hung has some conceptual weight. Nyeema Morgan is an African-American artist. Yet the paintings are hung in salon style, a form of display promulgated by the Royal Academies of Art of France and England (founded in 1648 and 1768 respectively). Of course, these European white male institutions excluded the art of women and non-white artists. Could this installation method be a serendipitous coincidence?

The obscuring of the image with plexiglass and gold leaf, as well as the truncation of language in these works, is a way of interrogating what exactly is the message behind each work. Other artists, notably Glen Ligon and Christopher Wool, have thus broken down words and sentences. In the case of Ligon, this disruption of readability is often linked to the questioning of our received ideas about race. In Wool’s, we are asked to contemplate the accuracy of our perception, the license claimed by an artistic movement, as well as the way art is made.

Morgan asks so many questions in “Soft Power. Hard margins. — on what constitutes art, whether appropriation is always wrong, what an artist’s role should be, how art changes with context — this will make your head spin. I encourage you to give in to vertigo. You will feel incredibly alive.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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