Compositional verve and common sense are often at exhilarating odds in Sarah McRae Morton’s work. Her show “Mapping Stars at Noon” is at Foster/White in Seattle through Dec. 24.
Forget conceptual art. Forget minimalism, primitivism, expressionism and all the other “isms” of art history. If you want to see an artist who can paint the way a keyboard prodigy can tickle the ivories, you need to rush to Sarah McRae Morton’s show, “Mapping Stars at Noon.”
Morton’s work is visionary, virtuosic and full of bewildering surprises. Her paintings are both rigorously composed and deliciously unhinged. The sheer energy she conveys on the canvas is a marvel.
Some background: Morton grew up in rural Pennsylvania, studied with Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum and now lives in Germany. “Mapping Stars at Noon” does, however, have a semi-local connection. A few years before the Lewis and Clark Expedition, one of Morton’s ancestors, a half-Shawnee man named John Paulee, fled his Virginia home as a teenager and worked as a fur trader along the Missouri River before being murdered there in his early 20s.
Sarah McRae Morton: ‘Mapping Stars at Noon’
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through Dec. 24, Foster/White Gallery, 220 Third Ave. S., Seattle (206-622-2833 or fosterwhite.com).
Morton’s sister lives in Montana, and Morton recently explored the upper Missouri “to gather impressions of the landscape,” she writes in her artist’s statement, “and throw a handful of wildflowers along the river where John Paulee could have died.”
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That trip may have been the catalyst for these paintings, but many other influences – Nerdrum, Bacon and Turner among them – are in play here. Morton says the “blurred passages” in her work also allude to “the dragged light on a glass plate negative, the result of a slow shutter and impatient wolf.”
As that comment suggests, Morton can be as slippery a writer as she is a painter, and many of her oils on canvas are packed with literary and art-history allusions.
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” borrows its title from a W.B. Yeats poem, and makes reference to Gilbert Stuart’s painting “The Skater” and Henry Raeburn’s “The Skating Minister.” In it, a female figure standing in a small rowboat is flanked by two 18th-century gentlemen skating away from her. No circus animals are depicted, but the sense of three willful human presences in pursuit of some enigmatic goal is powerful.
The show’s title painting – one of her annual self-portraits, Morton says – is equally elusive. It shows the artist perched on the humped back of a brown bear, her face turned away from the viewer to examine a magenta cloud suspended in an otherwise naturalistic misty gray sky. The bear, Morton explains, symbolizes “the history we carry and the past that carries us.” But you don’t need to have that information to feel immediately drawn into the lofty heights of this gorgeous composition.
Morton strikes a still grander symphonic-anarchic note in “The Impossible Hunt,” her variation on 19th-century artist Edward Hicks’ painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” In Morton’s version, birds, dogs, rabbits, a moose, a rhinoceros and other incompatible predators and prey are crammed as tightly as subway-car passengers on the banks of a riverine landscape.
“The Wake of the Whale” is just as complex as it shows a hurtling railway engine with a decaying cetacean straddling its top and ragged garlands of greenery festooning its cow-catcher. In “The Rush to Unlooked-for Sights,” a sled-dog team scatters entropically in all directions, with some assistance from a soaring owl. The painting looks like someone just detonated it.
Compositional verve and common sense are often at exhilarating odds in Morton’s work. The result is imagery that emblazons itself on your mind with a fever-dream intensity.