Subtle brush work informed by traditional Chinese calligraphy, meet Pizza Rat. (With Wings). What’s truly remarkable about Jeffrey Morabito is his ability to straddle multiple cultures and influences in one cohesive body of work, almost certainly attributable his background. Half Italian and half Chinese, Morabito grew up in New York, spent ten years living and working in Beijing, spent time in Seoul, showed in Germany, and again lives in New York, affording him a distinctive vantage point to see each side of the world from the other. Armed with this unique perspective, he has the uncanny ability to use paint as a medium to hop from one cultural source to the next, managing to marry a masterfully understated technique with the rawness and grit of New York’s detritus.
Morabito’s show, “Glossolalia”, is now on display at The Gallery at 1GAP. This unusual space overlooking Grand Army Plaza, designed by Richard Meier, extends from the lobby through hallways and to the upper floors, allowing the viewer to discover Morabito’s paintings in unexpected ways. Step off the elevator and there’s a range of paintings that undermines one’s expectations. An image of a flattened rat on a New York City street can coexist with the stunning color and paint handling of his recent leaf paintings—and through Morabito’s incisive lens, this somehow makes sense.
We seem to be living at a time favoring the particular over the general. This should be a good time for Morabito; he is growing ever closer to the particular. He produces a never-ending train of small paintings and drawings, many using various colors of markers, that at any moment could expand into a series of large work. An example could be Knife with Reflection (2018), a small painting of the reflection in a kitchen knife. The hand holding the knife interrupts the edge of the painting and sits in a field of violet and pink probably applied using the knife in the image.
A series of paintings and numerous ink drawings of Monstera deliciosa leaves (represented in the show by two large format works) demonstrate his knowledge of Korean brush painting. The liquid feel of the ink studies demonstrates the clarity of the movement of the brush. In the large leaf painting the tearing down and building up of paint is buoyed by the fluidity of the ink paintings. There is a clarity that could seem accidentally found yet could not have happened without considerable focus. As a result, we do not see an artist who struggles and builds work by reducing forms to their simplest values. Instead his is an additive process: he is unafraid to keep building. No preciousness here. And with growing confidence comes the onus on color and more intense paint handling.
As a rule I am not enthralled by visual ironies in painting. All too often I am left with an “aren’t we a clever clogs” feeling; I find that kind of thing passé. The large self portrait named Brooklyn (spelled backwards) came close to that. Looking at the painting, though, I can get past this. Its asymmetry brought me around: There is an overt surface tension in the composition, the nose is pushed right up against us in strong, engaging color. The sunglasses show through their different lens sizes that this is from life; in fact the painting was made by feeling his own face and completed with the use of a mirror. The reflection in the sunglasses does not give away any literal means to read the picture, no mini self-portrait or evidence of the artist’s presence, but is made—as Morabito would say—with “squish woosh”.
In the end the paint rules the day. For me that is the golden rule, the glue that holds all good painting together.