Fotograf Magazine

Mark Morrisroe

Emotional Metaphors – Discourse on Animals in the Work of Mark Morrisroe

The candy-coloured embrace of two innocently frowning puppies in a collage, both sweet and at the same time wild, covered with rough brush strokes of coloration. The torn paper references one of Mark Morrisroe’s typical gestures, from which this early piece hails: brush strokes, cracks in paper, folds, creases and scratches; and primarily fingerprints and dust that he carried from the surface of the rough-handled negatives onto photographic paper. These traces are typical for Morrisroe’s oeuvre. They refer to the materiality and the “made” character of his photographs. And above all, they are traces of the vulnerability of the human body and of life itself. “They are rubbed up against his life,” says Morrisroe’s friend, Rafael Sanchez, about his work. After his youth, which in many respects is movie material and led him into prostitution and also gave him a permanent limp caused by a gunshot injury; after tumultuous years spent in the circles of the Boston punk and art scenes; after all this, the life and the creative force of this charismatic artist abruptly ended at the mere age of 30 years as a result of an HIV infection. From his studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until his death, Morrisroe tirelessly experimented with elaborate photographic techniques and transformed his surroundings into photographic paintings with classical subjects: portraits and nude shots of his friends, but also urban landscapes, domestic still-lifes and a striking variety of animals, whose appearance in Morrisroe’s works is the topic of this article.

The two dogs mark the beginning of this “zoological” observation. They were created through a gum-bichromate method that was common in the second half of the 19th century. Morrisroe had begun exploring the potential of photographic techniques, but he was also drawn to successful pop-artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, whose fame he constantly dreamed of attaining. For his gum-bichromates and later also for his photograms he used found templates, magazine clippings and commercial ads, which celebrated the glamour of surfaces and of marketed sexualities. The animal composition also brings to mind advertisements, while flirting with a gay aesthetic, which in this transparently sugary form rarely appears in Morrisroe’s later work. Even though his work is pervaded by a desire for beauty, it always borders on smouldering bitterness, a feeling of insatiableness, the unfathomable and transience.

A good example of this ambiguity can be found in the series of black-andwhite photographs that the artist presented in 1981 at the student exhibition space in the 11th Hour Gallery, together with several gum-bichromates and cyanotypes. Morrisroe contrasts the trite portrait of a young man who is lovingly hugging his dog, with a shot of a dead rat, whose stiff legs spasm in the cold light of a streetlamp. This unvarnished representation brings to mind the vision of Diane Arbus, whose work influenced Morrisroe’s approach to photography. From 1983 onward however he acquired his own photographic language with a painterly quality that suited his concerns. He copied a colour negative onto black-and white film and eventually transluminated a “sandwich” of both negatives. Thus he achieved a muted colourfulness, he emphasised the dark parts and the unusual coarseness of the print. His sandwich print, Two Birds at Sunrise, shows a view from a window over rooftop scenery and is an homage to the very first photographs by Nicéphore Niépce. In the melancholic morning mood the indistinct outlines of two birds form a symbol of freedom. At the same time they are separated by a certain distance symbolising solitude.

Fascination can also be read as an allegory: Jack Pierson – still called Jonathan and Morrisroe’s great love at the time – lies on a bed in a bedspread between glittery pieces of clothing, lifting his hand in the air. Thereon he balances a parakeet, for which three cats hungrily lie in wait. The pastel shades, the young man’s gracefulness, the sweet household pets all freeze in a floating moment, during which it is possible to eagerly taste the fascination with the risk undergone.

Among the countless Polaroids that Morrisroe used like diary entries to document his own life as well as happenings in his surroundings, one can also find the portrait of a cat. With its immediacy and intimacy it mimics a human reflection. A patiently understanding gaze seeps through the patina of the Polaroid. The cat’s grimace in the sandwich print, Scary Picture, makes a provocatively strange and frightening impression. The stuffed creation and the blue flashing skull in the background were photographed in a museum. They continue the traditional connection of photography and taxidermy: two methods that developed simultaneously in the 19th century. They evolved from an interest in natural sciences and technical achievements and mutually inspired each other. Both are a transformation of life into an inanimate state. The complex relationship between photography and death – a topic that Roland Barthes also addresses – is reflected through the doubling of the creative process in a photograph of a stuffed animal.

After being diagnosed with HIV in 1986, his coming to terms with the illness manifested itself in Morrisroe’s works even more noticeably. His late sandwich prints tend toward abstraction and the monochrome. The bird reappears, escaping a yellow glowing sky with its spread wings and telling tales of sadness and solitude. As his illness progressed he distanced himself more and more from his friends and former models and he withdrew from the outside world. Nevertheless he devoted himself passionately to his work in the darkroom. With an unrelenting creative energy he conjured up confusing and magically-coloured photograms from newspaper clippings and X-ray scans. The shadow-game of his hand, sailing over the black photo paper like a white bird, has more layers and meanings than might seem at first glance. A crack symbolises the vulnerability of a body, which in fact is not a body; rather it is a construct of images, faded memories of faces that the bird carries with it on its wings.

In Morrisroe’s work animals are carriers of meaning. As fellow wanderers in an urban jungle they become metaphors for emotional states – and may even be easier to decode than his self-portraits.

Teresa Gruber