His three loves: photography, art history and Lisa

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In February 2014, prominent American photographer Abelardo Morell found himself tired of the same old thing – that thing being his annual ritual of giving Lisa A. McElaney, his wife and partner of nearly 40, a bouquet of flowers on the occasion of his birthday. (Truth be told, Lisa, herself a distinguished filmmaker and social worker, might not have been too keen on the idea either.) Photo of a gift of flowers.

Of course, this wasn’t going to be just any ordinary photograph: that wouldn’t have been Mr. Morell’s style. Best known for his devious Modernist redeployments of the venerable camera obscura tradition, in this case he brought a plain glass crystal vase into his studio and, against a flat white background, inserted a few single flower stems into it. her mouth, photographed them then pulled them out, put in another, a few flower stalks, photographed then pulled out… did this a dozen times, emerging with many separate photos of different bouquets of flowers coming out of the same still vase. Then he fed all the resulting images into his computer’s Photoshop program, effectively raising his hands and saying: You understand. His laptop spun for a few minutes and there came out a truly stunning image, an explosion of colorful exuberance and a perfect figure, he says, of his ever-fervent feelings for his beloved.

But there was much more to it: when you think about it, Mr. Morell’s process echoed how the Old Masters themselves made up the fictional bouquets of their surprisingly generous still lifes, a single flower at the top. times, for many months. . (Any complete bouquet, such as the one in the final image, would have rotted long before the master could drop the thing on the canvas.) The camera lens, then turns around as it walks to the receiving medium. It also reflected the upside-down transformation of Mr. Morell’s own life: Born in Cuba, he was 13 when his world turned upside down after his family immigrated to New York and moved into a basement apartment. . And his image is reminiscent of the way he used to look out the living room window at the bustling street life above, fantasizing his own eruption one day in this world, an eruption that never seemed to happen until what, he says, he meets Lisa, his last year at Bowdoin College: she straightened him up and opened him up.

This particular photograph was the occasion of a veritable frenzy of creative consequence: more than 75 of these images over the next few years, each one exploring another of the myriad technical deployments of Mr. Morell’s second great love of life, the photographic vocation itself, all images of flowers in vases, but in turn evoking the third great passion of his life, the cavalcade of his heroes from all the history of art.

The results of this delirium are examined in his book, “Flowers for Lisa” (recently released from Abrams), and form the basis of an investigation, currently at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York until December 22. Here, follow a sample of these experiences.

In many cases, Mr. Morell has played with the tendency of photography to impose illusions of spatial perspective on a flat surface, sometimes creating such an illusion himself from simple materials (slabs in the form of stained plywood, for example) before take the picture. In this case, he was also playing with photography’s ability to capture transitions in a fraction of a second, the sort of thing that earlier masters like Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, and Harold Edgerton had all studied. What struck him strangest about this image – a simple shot of a distinctly odd construction – was how, while the photo “simulates stopped movement and the force of gravity, none of those things are actually present”.

In another sort of generation of the illusion of a deep perspective, in this case an homage to Joseph Cornell or perhaps the sets by Robert Wilson and William Kentridge, Mr. Morell coated a plywood board with a layer of black putty in which he wedged just the stems of various flowers, arranged in an ascending progression towards the back, sprinkling the whole with petals. Lisa thought of it as the backdrop to a scene from Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”.

Another sly construction was this tribute to René Magritte. But what exactly is going on? A simple frontal photo of admittedly disconcerting coincidence, the image is fashioned from four plywood boards (the corners of two of them are stained dark red), a silver photo frame stuck in one corner, two vases and two roses (the foreground of one painted in gray).

In an obvious withdrawal to van Gogh, another of his heroes, seen at left, Mr. Morell returned to his technique of several individual snapshots fed into Photoshop, as he had also done in the homage to Gerhard Richter, at law. Here he also smeared gray paint on the bottom and the vase itself.

In this image, recalling Monet with a police officer’s puff, Mr Morell reverted to a technique he had used to celebrate the two artists on location (photographing at Giverny and Hampstead Heath). In this case, he captured the image at Floret Flower Farm in Washington state by erecting a dark sealed tent, with a periscope looking up, on a wooden slatted patio. He then climbed into the dark tent room with his camera to photograph the image of the scene outside – perfectly projected, through the tilted mirror of the periscope, onto the weathered slats.

In the case of this mind-bender, an evocation of “Through the Looking Glass” by his longtime muse Lewis Carroll, Mr. Morell seems to rise to the challenge for the viewer: “You get it! A few clues though: there is only a half mirror, there are two vases (one filled with colored water) and the seemingly square frame must have been specially constructed (its actual top is narrower than its bottom. ).

Of this image, the envoy for the whole series, Mr. Morell says: “There is a famous long exposure photograph, taken by Gjon Mili, of Picasso drawing flowers with a flashlight. Since I’m not Picasso, it took me all evening to get it right. This is the only frame in the entire sequence in which the photographer himself appears, although he is hardly the subject. Rather, he said, summing up the whole two-year effort, “There is a feeling of gratitude and grace, of abundance, of exuberance, of overwhelming… of my peacock self turning to Lisa and saying : “I love you and this is for you. ‘”

Flowers for Lisa II

Until December 22 at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, 745 Fifth Ave., 212-750-7070; houkgallery.com.


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