In Pueblo, One step forward at Sangre de Cristo

Jenny Morgan, Psychic Heartbeat, 2012. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi

By Ray Mark Rinaldi

Jenny Morgan is one of the most talented painters to emerge from Denver over the past decade. Her self-portraits — and that’s what she is known for, lots and lots of layered pictures of herself in oil —  are intimate, well-crafted and trippy, and their appeal is broad enough to win her a place on just about everyone’s list of favorite artists.

She’s also commercially successful, which is rare and admirable and forms the basis for the exhibition Jenny Morgan: Rise at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo. The show, considerable in size at 20-plus pieces, is culled from work in private collections, and serves as testimony to the fact that people are eager to purchase her work and have done so with enthusiasm over the years. Good for them and for Jenny Morgan.

And, I have to say, without being patronizing, that it’s good to see it hanging in Pueblo. High-quality, contemporary art exhibits are rare there, despite the civic boosterism that tries to portray it as an emerging cultural capital of the state. I pass by there six to eight times a year on my way from Denver to Santa Fe and almost never stop to see art. So, good for Pueblo and for curator Ivar Zeile who gets extra points for spreading the love.

As an event, it’s a big one, though as an exhibit, it doesn’t quite come together. And that’s unfortunate on several levels.

A detail of Jenny Morgan's Merging the Phantom, 2012. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi
A detail of Jenny Morgan’s Merging the Phantom, 2012. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi

To be fair, Morgan’s shows are inherently problematic. It’s the self-portrait thing. Morgan’s depictions of herself (and sometimes her friends) have a certain similarity. They are all rectangular, nearly all solo subjects, framed from the shoulders or waist up, looking directly at the viewer with piercing eyes.

Individually, her works can be captivating journeys past the surface of skin and into the psyche. Morgan’s brush skills allow her, as a routine, to veer with agility from the representational to the abstract and as she does so, take us on a journey from corporal fact to soulful ambiguity. She nails the evolving self and documents the physical and emotional cycles of being human.

She is brave in a way. Sacrificing personal privacy and rejecting vanity to show something deeper. She’s not above employing a crass color, like a glaring pink or red, or an obvious symbol, like a skull, to make her links between the cellular and the spiritual.

But 20-plus journeys into the mind, all placed on the wall next to one another, don’t serve the work well.

One Jenny Morgan painting can be a rewarding challenge — adventurous, touching, intimidating, scary, joyful, and affirming all at once. But a score of them is hard to consume. En masse, they start to look overwrought and agitated; not repetitive exactly, but a bit neurotic and indulgent. They go from sincere to melodramatic, and veer straight to the terrain of camp.

Jenny Morgan, New Territory, 2009. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi
Jenny Morgan, New Territory, 2009.
Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi

This is the burden of painting scenes that are all high-anxiety. They edit together like a movie with no pacing, as if the director started with the climax and stayed there through the final credits. The only thing driving the narrative of “Rise” is the fact that these paintings are all in private collections, but that’s a weak curatorial link to begin with. No doubt, there’s a great Jenny Morgan show in the making, though a curator may want to unite the objects together with more than the fact that Jenny Morgan created them.

There’s an upside to this relentless intensity. If the show is meant to introduce new fans to Morgan’s work then it is certainly attention-getting. And if Pueblo is going to take it up a notch by showing artists with big reputations, it doesn’t hurt for them to be exciting. Hey, I stopped to see it, and spent an afternoon wandering around Pueblo, and that’s saying something.

But if artists, curators and galleries are going to show off in new places, they need to deliver quality goods; shows that tell interesting stories in effective ways. Their efforts need to live up to the expectations they set for viewers or all that outreach will appear condescending. Pueblo deserves as much.

“RISE: Jenny Morgan Self-Portraits,” runs through January 16, at the  Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, 210 N. Santa Fe Ave. Info at  719-295-7200 or sdc-arts.org

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