Executed at large scale, Sgt. Fury (2020) is among the most ambitious of Ivan Morley’s paintings made using thread on canvas. It encapsulates the dichotomies and contradictions at the heart of his work, and sheds light on many facets of his three-decade career.
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Morley has long sought out techniques by which he can circumvent standard painterly language and the associations that go along with it. In addition to embroidery, he has employed reverse painting on glass, painting on tooled leather, and batik, among other processes. Each has craft-related applications outside of high art contexts, bringing with it other varieties of expression and their attendant subcultures, not to mention their particular formal opportunities and constraints.
Embroidery requires the use of a sewing machine, of course, which in turn dictates the ways in which Morley goes about creating his compositions. Beginning in one spot and working within the delimited area of the embroidery ring that holds the canvas taut, he gradually moves across the picture plane. This introduces a slow, methodical, stitch-by-stitch rhythm that in turn informs the content of the image, as colors and shapes suggest others in Morley’s mind. The development of the painting is therefore completely haphazard on the one hand, and rigidly structured on the other. He also navigates a set of preexisting parameters when it comes to his palette, since he is limited to the colors available to him from thread suppliers.
Tracing the making of Sgt. Fury, it becomes clear how these restrictions paradoxically give rise to a visual openness, and allow Morley to take on an incredibly wide-ranging set of themes limited only by his imagination and experience. As the stitching progressed he began rendering, in a sideways nod to the still life tradition, a series of vases filled with aquatic plants; Morley researched these subjects online in an ad hoc way, hand-embellishing printouts of his findings.
The act of pursuing an informational wormhole on the internet—allowing one finding to beget another and ending up far from the original goal, though equipped with new fascinations—is not unlike the way one passage of a Morley painting attaches to those that surround it. Accordingly, over time, shapes that reminded him of turtle shells began to emerge, prompting him to test his ability to draw the reptiles in a series of large sketches.
What seems at first like a random association gives rise to a fantasia of memories and trajectories, which in turn generate further visual forms and ideas. Morley had already spent considerable time pondering what it means to render things with shells, which intensify their contents and lead the mind to ponder cosmological spaces and their containers. For instance, in the epic poem “Jerusalem” (c. 1808), William Blake described, in spectral fashion,
...the Mundane Shell which froze on all sides round Canaan on / The vast Expanse: where the Daughters of Albion Weave the Web / Of Ages & Generations, folding & unfolding it, like a Veil of / Cherubim / And sometimes it touches the Earths summits, & sometimes spreads / Abroad into the Indefinite Spectre, who is the Rational Power.
In a number of important paintings over the last decade, Morley had transposed the shell into other forms that resemble it, like masks, which also consolidate physical power and psychological intrigue. These include a 2005 batik work, from an ongoing group of paintings with the title Tehachepi, (sic), depicting a trio of ferocious riders who share a single BMX bike. Like the turtle that became a drawing obsession in Sgt. Fury, BMX bikes were at one time among the few forms Morley felt comfortable rendering. Whether out of sheer childhood familiarity, or some other, purely aesthetic affinity for its unique geometry, the bike would show up, as if propelled by an otherworldly force to take root in the paintings as a leitmotif. Morley's propensity to organize his paintings into groups, each of which is defined by a condensed, gnomic narrative often related to obscure, even apocryphal moments in California history, is a prominent feature of his practice.
Sgt. Fury, interestingly, is one of only a few works to exist outside this structure, pointing to its world-containing scope. Meditating on the turtle and its shell, Morley recalled keeping red-eared slider turtles as pets in his youth. Specifically, he remembered how one of the turtles outlasted the others and earned the moniker Sgt. Fury, in honor of the fictitious military hero in the eponymous Marvel comic book (1963–1981); and then, finding Sgt. Fury motionless one day and burying him, only to wonder later if he had been merely hibernating. Mortality, pop culture, and childhood memories flow into one another like waves coming from different directions, dissolving and deforming each other. The serious and the cartoony are literally stitched together, as are the haunting that comes along with the idea of accidentally burying something alive, and the abstract rumination necessary to transform this haunting into a physical object with which others can interact.
Morley filters recollection and gesture through the slowly evolving composition filling the canvas, stitch by stitch, while the painting acts as a magnet, pulling towards it all manner of details, images, patterns, and text. The words “Sgt. Fury” arc through a thicket of shapes, abstract and otherwise; the barcode and price from the comic book's cover enter into the mix too, though with alterations determined more by the vagaries of space and color than conscious intentionality. Witness the way the word “Marvel” has sprouted an extra “M”,“E”, and “L”, breaking otherwise legible text into something that teeters on the edge of intelligibility. When functional elements like text and barcodes show up in Morley’s work, they are sensorial prompts as much as they are semantic ones, included for their feeling and texture as well as their ability to further emotional or intellectual connections.
Tracking text throughout Morley's oeuvre also reveals its diversity, not only between paintings made in different mediums, but also within the body of thread works. Another Tehachepi, (sic) painting from 2007, for instance, features the words “Grey Roots"; like the title on a horror movie poster, they float above the strange assemblage of coats, hair, keys, and non-objective forms that anchor the center of the composition.
Other paintings include sewn renditions of prompts that Morley inscribed on the raw canvas as notes to himself, again demonstrating how he folds numerous layers of perception and reflection into the ever-unfolding reality of the work. In a sense, the painting consumes itself, and thereby is remade and reseen as something new and unexpected. Words, then, become essentially abstract forms even as they lead the mind—Morley’s and the viewer’s alike—into far-flung fields of meaning.
“I’ve never been preoccupied by the division between abstraction and figuration. I’ve found that the space between them is a much broader area to work in.”
Every shape, form, image, and gesture in Sgt. Fury is treated as an object, and indeed, Morley makes the painting itself in a way so as to play up objecthood, starting with its medium. If the use of thread already disrupts painterly image-making practices, supplanting the action of the brush—and intimations of the painter’s hand—with the regular, machine-driven rhythm of the sewing machine, it also suggests that this painting might not be a painting at all, but a tapestry or sculpture. Raphael’s large-scale tapestries at the Vatican are telling points of reference, both for the scope of their vision and their inclusion of figures that wouldn’t feel out of place in a comic book.
The challenge of rendering a figure in thread is one of the animating forces in Sgt. Fury. Its lower left corner, where Morley began, is dominated by images of several human feet, subject to varying degrees of abstraction. Shot through with gradations of color that run the gamut from earthy to lurid, and trailing a multitude of marks, the feet appear to march out toward the viewer in an explosion of simultaneity, suggesting that he has captured several moments in time across a single two-dimensional plane.
This Futurist- and Cubist-inflected approach, geared toward motion and dynamism, is reminiscent of early modernist experiments like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), which channels the charge and discovery of early cinema, honoring the sweep of Western figurative painting by dismantling it and turning it inside out. In Morley’s case, however, the subject is not only a single body seen from different perspectives and at different stages of its trajectory “through” the space of the picture. It is also the evolution of delineated, recognizable forms from a teeming flow of material—physical, visual, mental—to which they eventually return. Cinematic movement is part of this mix, but so are the tidal anxieties and aleatory pleasures of the Information Age, when data moves around the world at lightning speed, collapsing public and private space as it goes.
All of the immediately recognizable moments in Sgt. Fury vibrate with this radical sense of chronology. Morley brings attention to the making and unmaking of history itself, which he understands to be both as vast and monolithic as a civilization and as intimate and fleeting as a passing, seemingly casual observation. The work’s astounding visual and conceptual depth is an expression of this act of personal archaeology, by which he unearths not only the stories surrounding the lingering ghost of a beloved turtle, but unexpectedly universal images that resonate in the collective consciousness. Frequently, these are the very images that result from the most mundane aspects of Morley’s idiosyncratic picture-making process, such as the Rasta-colored rainbows that began as stitched traces of the sewing ring. It’s as if the “lens” through which the artist sees his own work spawned refractions.
“One fantastic thing about painting is that I don’t have to stick to any kind of sense; in fact, I put more energy into unmaking sense rather than making sense pictorially.”
For every rainbow, foot, and turtle Morley casts as a protagonist in this painting, there are countless other background players who cannot be described with any single name. These include splashes; stuttering mazes of unlikely color combinations; configurations that almost look like text but then fall apart before they add up; torqued grids inspired by the look of fishnet stockings, linked semantically to the other aquatic imagery; and passages of bewildering subtlety wherein Morley appears to transcend his own attempts to step aside from the look of the brushed mark and revels in the pleasure of painting itself, however constituted, however conceived.
Ivan Morley has been the subject of solo exhibitions at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles (2018); Bortolami Gallery, New York (2016); and Kimmerich Galerie, Berlin (2014). Group exhibitions include Abstract America Today, Saatchi Gallery, London (2014); Painting Expanded, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York (2011); The Artist’s Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2010); DAS GESPINST, Die Sammlung Schürmann zu Besuch im Museum Abteiberg, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany (2009); Imagination Becomes Reality, Part IV: Borrowed Images, Sammlung Goetz, Munich (2006); and Painting in Tongues, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2006). His work is in the permanent collections of K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and University Museum of Contemporary Art at the Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Morley lives and works in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Ivan Morley, please view these texts from Elephant, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Art in America, and his 2006 self-titled monograph, or purchase a copy of his recently published self-titled monograph, featuring an essay by John C. Welchman, by clicking here.
Photography and video of Ivan Morley works and studio by Lee Thompson, unless otherwise noted
Ivan Morley quotations from videotaped artist interview, April 27, 2020
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