Journey Into the Realm, bro. Stop bogarting that painting, dude.
Bruce Noel Mortenson–like many contemporary artists–is a collector of arbitrary images: figures he makes up (like two-headed monsters), doodles (like you might find in a middle school students’ carefully considered spiral-bound notebook), cultural icons (like the Rubik’s Cube), and the rare contemporary art references. Mortenson’s menagerie of congested, brightly colored compositions are easy to dismiss as decorative high-brow doodlery. The hippy-dippy, day-glo-synthetic swirlings of his paintings, combined with the pseudo-spiritual titles he gives them (the show is titled Journey into the Realm), don’t exactly encourage the viewer to take him seriously. “Walking through Euphoria?” Really, Bruce? “Invention of the Subconscious Recollection?” Seriously? Should I be reviewing his drug dealer?
Acrylic visual clutter flows across Mortenson’s canvas like salmon ramming into each other as they stream the wrong way to mate, resulting in the same confusing fervor. In Venus of Opulent Tension, for example, sperm-egg hybrids butt-up against a Kara Walker-esque silhouette of the Goddess Venus, who is encased in a protective snow globe sack and perched atop a clunky child’s toy. Labial paramecium and sausagey sacks run amok, and somewhere in this universe, someone or someTHING is talking about two identical horses; what looks like screenprint is only the obsessive hand of the artist painting a delicate outline of a horse, and then repainting that same horse in the very same word balloon, almost addressing multiplicity outside the realm of the editionable print.
The flatness of the canvas surface and the apparently authorless brushstroke gives all of Mortenson’s subjects equal importance, but in a way that makes the sort of democracy it seems like he’s striving for increasingly unappealing. If Venus of Opulent Tension weren’t titled so, one might conclude the subject of the painting was the appeal of clutter, the meaningless fullness of existence, freak sperm, or pseudo-science. Everything and nothing seem to touch. But is the subject Venus? Or is the title the only arbitrary consideration of these pieces? Is there, in fact, a subject, and if so, does it even matter? Upon the sort of closer examination–and I mean close in the way that you get so close to the painting that a buzzer goes off and the guard comes to tell you to step away from the painting–even Mortenson’s blob choices appear to be purposeful. Many have been painted and repainted leaving a record of blobs past that just didn’t make the cut. But why?
Beyond the humming electricity of Mortenson’s static imagery is he trying to say anything? Is the sense of nostalgia evoked by his plethora of modern art historical references legitimate, or is he pulling one over on us, replacing canonical significance with irony? It seems plausible that, with his serious doodles, Mortenson wants to show us the lameness and reality of nostalgia: that we aren’t sure what we long for, and we don’t really remember what it was. If only that were his mission; Mortenson insists he creates art solely to excite people and revel in imagination. The lack of clarity in his aim and the missed opportunities to address issues in contemporary art (what does it mean that a Kara Walker knock-off is given as much attention as a glittery hair sack?), make Mortenson’s paintings a disappointment, but the questions his work raises about nostalgia and the seriousness of so much art work today are still worth asking–whether he wants us to or not.
August 4 – October 14
Chicago Cultural Center, Michigan Avenue Galleries
78 E. Washington Street