JENNY MORGAN: Play Nice

“Play Nice”, 2012, oil on canvas, 38 x 30 inches

About the Exhibition

Invisible Selves: The Uncanny Portraits of Jenny Morgan
By Nancy Hightower, 2012

We demand much from portraiture artists—to be true to the real while propelling us into the conceptual, to give form and shape to those aspects of ourselves which seem to escape the description of language. This is no easy task in a society where our bodies are visually spliced and diced by mirrors, camera phones, Facebook posts, or the man or woman sitting across from you in the restaurant. Such participatory surveillance constantly thrusts us into a world of objectification; we have been conditioned to define ourselves by a host of identities that never actually represent the core of who we are. Many of us perhaps feel the weight of that uncanny strangeness residing within us, that battlefield of the other and the self.

Jenny Morgan’s portraits offer a visual doorway into that conceptual realm, where multiple selves are revealed through her realistic nudes. The way in which Morgan photographs her subjects brings them to a place of both objectification and agency:  “My lack of direction leaves the model feeling a bit uncomfortable and vulnerable in front of my camera, especially if they have agreed to be nude. I am most drawn to the vulnerable state, where they look into the camera as if to feel connected to something.”  She is acutely aware of the “multiples of the individual,” yet letting those multiples play on “one picture plane” allows the uncanny repetition of self to further loosen the boundaries we might wish to hold against the other. The French philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva extends Freud’s theory of the uncanny by stating it is a an aesthetic that allows one to see the false self we have created and believed as an opposition to all that which we regard as foreign. We often define ourselves by such binaries: artist/civilian, Republican/Democrat, hipster, intellectual, aesthete, Walmart shopper, white trash. Such labels are bandied about without a second thought amid one’s own “group” and yet by creating this sense of foreignness, we thus split ourselves even further into a state of objectification (Wilbur).

Influenced by artists such as Jenny Saville, Gerhard Richter, and Kaye Donachie, Morgan’s expansive nudes strip her subjects of all such “markers.” Instead, the viewer is left to engage with the multiplicity of selves presented in totality of the body. Morgan begins all of her paintings with a red background, and then uses layers of paint to produce more flesh-like tones, the subtleties of hair color or eyes. Her subjects look oddly at home in front of the viewer despite the gaze of longing or struggle. Take, for instance, We Are All Setting Suns (2010), where the subject of Morgan’s work is her own face. One vibrantly red hand reaches up to touch her lips, as if making sure she is indeed flesh and not simply spirit. Pure black tube paint blurs a vertical line through the pupil, drawing my eye up to her dark flyaway hair. It is like she caught in an electric current, between avatar and human, the face almost ephemeral while the foregrounded hands are still in the process of metamorphosis. In Self Portrait 27 (2009), Morgan’s face is sanded down into a mottled, abject space while her breasts take the forefront. There is at once both a vulnerability and indictment going on here, for how many women have felt themselves being effaced by their sexuality, as opposed to being propelled to a deeper understanding of their sensuality? The body is split into objects: breast and face. Morgan’s betrayed eyes peer through the charred effect to ask us why this must be.

Her other portraits of women are equally as mesmerizing. Dissolving Contract (2008) shows only an older woman’s face and shoulders. We cannot tell whether the woman is sinking back into the canvas or emerging from it, whether her mouth is open in a dying gasp or taking the first draughts of air. She is transitioning between states of the familiar and the strange (heimlich and unheimlich), and the ambiguous title does little to help us know exactly what kind of social contract is being dissolved. Will it lead her to chaos, or to being reborn? Sisterhood (2010) shows two women who could be sisters or lovers, one cradling the other’s head so that her breast falls beautiful in line with the other’s neck. The taller woman looks serenely at the viewer, yet on her guard. It is the younger sister whose face is slightly blurred and whose look is more uncertain. The red hands that wrap around them seem almost otherworldly—one is merely the outline of a hand. While we know they are the sisters’ hands, they are strangely placed, almost as if they could at any moment pry the women away from each other. Despite such ambiguity, there is a realist consistency inherent in all of Morgan’s work—which, oddly enough, is what lends itself to the uncanny moment. The uncanny is a powerful aesthetic, but one that plays by certain rules. Kristeva argues that “Artifice neutralizes uncanniness and makes all returns of the repressed plausible, acceptable, and pleasurable” (187). The moment we move into the totality of conceptual art, we are allowed to dismiss the strangeness we encounter in the name of intellectual rigor.

Morgan’s newest exhibit continues this journey into otherness as more shadow selves begin to erupt from the canvas. The face that hovers upside down over the subject in His Return (2012) presents itself almost as doppelganger, the sanded down features creating a ghostly antagonism. Will these two heads stay conjoined, and, like some circus performing act of long ago, travel around with great tales about how they share only one brain? Or will their narratives be more dreadful, for certainly that shadow self has the possibility to take over the more “real” portrait. The man looks calm, if somewhat amused at his predicament. It will be a test of wills to see who wins.

Morgan also introduces a different color palette with this series—pale yellow forms the background for Anchor (2012). While the forearms have a soft blue creeping up past the elbow, the woman’s torso looks rather spotted, with color ribbons striping her arms and upper chest. She reminds me less of a vulnerable girl and more of a planet ready to whir off into distant galaxies. The yellow background and blue forearms are more muted in color, suggesting that the artist is finding a new route to take us into the genre of portraiture. This newer series definitely expands portraiture into a more conceptual encounter with the body—it is up for us to do the work of analysis.

The uncanny serves to destabilize the “self” that we believe we own; it is that ownership, that consumerism of the self that leads us to dismiss all that we wish “not to be” as an Other we learn to hate. Kristeva reminds us that looking at realism is “[t]o discover our disturbing otherness, for that indeed is what bursts in to confront that ‘demon,’ that threat, that apprehension generated by the projective apparition of the other at the heart of what we persist in maintaining as a proper, solid ‘us.” By recognizing our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners” (Kristeva 192). The beautiful nudes of Jenny Morgan resist creating identities as objects; instead, she brings in a sense of doubleness to trigger the uncanny within her work. The “demon” that Kristeva refers to then becomes only a mirage once one has acknowledged and embraced the foreigner as being an aspect of the self, when one has looked at the  body in its raw totality and see it as beautiful. All those pieces that at first defined you—wife, lawyer, teacher, husband, student, banker—begin to fly away like pieces of charred skin. Thus Morgan sets her audience on a rather daunting journey when they step into the gallery. Instead of pedantic realist portraits, she has built a wall of mirrors. Forget what the nudes will show you—are you really ready to be seen?

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Wilber, Ken. “Subject Becomes Object.” YouTube. Web. 13 March 2012

Nancy Hightower currently teaches Writing in the Visual Arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her recent notable published writings on contemporary art include "In the Beginning" for the Denver Art Museum's Embrace! Exhibition Catalogue, Volume II., the catalogue essay for Carrie Ann Baade's Cute and Creepy exhibit at the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, "Necessary Violence: The Rectification of Goya by the Chapman Brothers," "The Grotesque Menageries of Greg Simkins," and the introductory essay to Plus Gallery's most recent book Xi Zhang - Dream Dusts, amongst others including numerous fiction works. She lectures nationally and internationally on the rhetoric of the fantastic, grotesque, and uncanny in art and literature. She believes in the dynamic interplay of art and language, and writes fiction for artists, museums, and galleries.