Kristen Morgin’s new exhibition titled Messages to My Twenty Year Old Self is the artist’s most recent installment of unfired clay trompe l’oeil sculptures. Morgin has repeatedly captured the attention of the art world with her odd historical pairings, mastery of realism, and compelling compositions. In just the past three years, Morgin has landed solo shows at Marc Selwyn Fine Art; in Beverly Hills; and at Zach Feuer Gallery, Anthony Meier Fine Art, and Greenwich House Pottery, all in New York City. She also has work in the permanent collections of the Hammer Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We’ve covered an earlier show, The Super Can Man and Other Illustrated Classics, previously on CFile.
Morgin continues momentum with this show at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, her most complex and engaging to date. As you scroll through the images read the materials descriptions closely, they are not what you might expect…
Above Image: Kristen Morgin, Untitled (Tweety Bird), 2014, 2 1/2 x 8 x 8 inches, Unfired clay, paint, ink, crayon, string and wood. Photo Credit: Robert Wedemeyer Courtesy of Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Beverly Hills
“Is that real?? Viewers ask this question a lot of my work,” Morgin tells CFile. “The answer is always yes. The things that I make are real. They just don’t operate the way other things do. For example my books are real however you cannot open them and read them like other books. My books, unlike other books, will break if you drop them. And over time, both my books and other books will disintegrate without proper care.”
Morgin’s work recalls the playful assemblages of George Herms, but where he created mostly self-contained compositions, Morgin’s are precarious temporal arrangements. She sets herself apart from her collage, assemblage, and folk art predecessors in that instead of using found objects and ready-made elements, she sculpts her own trompe l’oeil components using unfired and painted clay. She owns every single detail in the work, every touch of color, the combinations, the forms, edges, tears and she edits them all to her liking.
Morgin’s making process does begin with actual objects that one-by-one get replicated (with artist license) in clay.
“As in still life painting these pieces begin with actual objects that I spend time arranging into different compositions. When I settle upon a configuration that I like I begin the process of removing objects one-by-one and replacing them with my versions of these same objects.”
The type of objects, aesthetics, and arrangements that Morgin uses have evolved over the past decade. You can see a distinct shift in her work in her 2004 Cello #3 to her 2015 violin in Untitled (Big Papa). Previously, Morgin created massive sculptures such as rotting full-sized cars, now she works almost exclusively with handheld objects, creating scale through collections. Her work has evolved from a focus on objects to arrangements, from “time” erasing objects to complex narrative, and from actual degradation towards illusion and trompe l’oeil.
“At some point around 2005 or ’06 I remember looking at a slide sheet of my work and it looked like the same kind of chunky object over and over again. The colors were the same. The chunk was the same. The objects seemed to come from the same time period or at least they were all recovered from the bottom of the same lake. I wanted to see if I could make different objects.”
“[…] I didn’t want to make just any copy of green eggs and ham, I wanted to make my copy of green eggs and ham with all of its creases, wear and tear. These pieces were like little monuments to these sentimental things. Yet the fragility of the pieces and the unromantic quality of some of the objects made them sorry little monuments. It was like making a monument to your grandmother’s coffee cup by drawing a picture of it in the sand on a beach just before the tide comes in. That is initially how I began to change my work from the chunky, dirty, old romantic objects to the cleaner, colorful, trompe‘l’oeil, romantic and ordinary objects that I make today.”
Memory plays a major role in Morgin’s sculpture, creating a beautiful veil between what you remember of her familiar subjects and what her new connections suggest. The elements in Messages to My Twenty Year Old Self combine people, icons, and designs from different eras spanning over the past century. Morgin’s work casually fills inevitable gaps in our memory, contextualizes what we do know, and creates new personal histories.
Morgin explains that she can create a kind of history in objects through collage:
“There is a piece in my current show that is called “You’re The Smurfiest.” It is a record album from Korea of American show tunes. The record was probably from the 1960’s (it has that particular look and you don’t need to read Korean to understand that). The picture on the cover is of Audrey Hepburn. She is wearing a turn of the century get-up from when she played Eliza Dolittle in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady. The hat she is wearing might have come from England in the early 1900’s. The song on the record is from Charade, a different movie that Hepburn played which was set in the 1960’s. Then I have also painted stickers over Audrey Hepburn’s face. The stickers appear as if some one had tried to peal them off and some white paper residue was left behind. The stickers are of Han Solo from Star Wars (1977) and of Papa Smurf(1980’s). So just in that one piece I touched upon the 1900’s, the 1960’s, 1970’s and ‘80s and I hinted at cultures in Korea, America, England, the Smurf Village, and a galaxy far, far away. I see it as collage but also as a kind of examination of how an object changes with time, the elements, and interactions with different people/owners.”
Messages to My Twenty Year Old Self is a nonchalant facade that veils an obsessively controlled practice. Morgin masters the objects, their level of degradation, how they are collaged, how they are arranged, the pairings, and the associations. These decisions feel oddly personal and fresh causing the artist’s physical absence to become a haunting aspect of the exhibition. Morgin invents entirely new paradigms seemingly casually enough for them to be mistaken for happenstance.
Her ceramic cups, at first a strange anomaly in the show, offer a unique moment in the exhibit where all of Morgin’s flailing realities come together. The cups are created in an amateur style and are decorated with hand-painted playful pop references from cartoons, comics, and computers; the same themes as her unfired sculpture. Where the wood and cans are real “found objects,” the cups are real “created objects.” They bridge the found, and the created, the real and fictional, and the literal and representational. They expose the mysterious entity playfully arranging objects as Morgin herself, the creator of alternate realities.
Although she has total artistic control down to each, tear, sticker, and scribble, the work is not about Morgin, not a biography, but about speaking to the viewer through shared experience. On the surface there are shared popular culture references, but in the details lie moments of emotion seen in the playfulness of the squished Dough Boy of Have a Lovely Day or Ponderosa and in the boredom of the torn stickers in Cup-O-Smurf. The work becomes incredibly personal to the viewer who for a short time tenderly inhabits the invented world as if it is their own.
Justin Crowe is a Writer-at-Large for CFile.
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