Robert Morgan and the Art of Perception

  • Robert Morgan and the Art of Perception

    Robert Morgan is a painter whose work is embedded in the tradition of the landscape. Although his approach tends toward the Classical more than the Romantic, he is fundamentally a Modernist — «an artist in his time» — to cite the nineteenth century French critic, Charles Baudelaire. Over the years, his self-appointed task has been to capture the monuments and waterways of Venice through the appearance of light. Therefore, his perceptions of this finely wrought »invisible city» have less in common with the more narrative aspects of life seen in paintings by Canaletto or with the earlier illustrative works of Carpaccio. In either case, their views of Venice are not the way things appear today. For example, the glittering ancient stones of Torcello appear differently to Morgan than they did to Ruskin just as the appearance of the Acropolis today appears differently than it did in eighteenth century or, for that matter, in the fifth century B.C.E.

    Morgan’s paintings do not seek to capture the past or the material grandeur at the dawn of the Republic when world trade from Europe, Africa, India, and the Silk Road converged on this relatively small metropolis in the late middle ages. Although the history of this period is embedded in the subjects he has chosen to paint — Salute, San Giorgio, or Chiesa dei Carmini — Morgan remains within the present as he perceives and later recalls these ecclesiastical structures with insurmountable accuracy. His paintings keenly represent the majesty of Venetian architecture as a temporal fact that exists within the history of today. Rather than giving an expressionist view of what he sees, the artist distills the essence of his vision into something more concrete. Morgan performs his task regularly, acutely aware of time, place, and the passage of light. Like Aldous Huxley in The Art of Seeing, he has perfected the ineluctably human function of knowing how to see. The art of perception or, conversely, the perception of art cannot occur effectively perception or, conversely, the perception of art cannot occur effectively observation. Because Morgan’s paintings are inextricably bound to the eye and memory, the beauty and magnificence of Venice intentionally comes alive in a way that sets his work on a level above most color photography or instantaneous video recordings.

    As an American in Venice for the major part of his career, Morgan has made Italy his home. The presence of water is not foreign to him. Although born and raised on the northeast seaboard of New York, his is lineage is Welsh, which means he is a man of the sea. Robert and I share the same name. Our common ancestor is the »infamous Welsh ruffian» of the Triangular trade in Barbados, Sir Henry Morgan. Water is within the terrain of Wales and close to the lives of those who inhabit this cozy seaside country nestled into the southwest corner of the United Kingdom. Morgan’s manner of perceiving the subtle effects of light deflected throughout Venice is in some ways indigenous to his manner of perceiving details in his immediate world. In viewing the rising pilaster arches of the Campanile (2008), one is taken by the structure of its completeness. In formal terms, the linear planes and surface space of this painting suggest the kind of light found in the chromatic abstract paintings of Mark Rothko or in the still-lifes of Giorgio Morandi. In paintings by Morgan, such as Torcello grande ( 2010), Sottoportego Zattere (2008), and New Years Day (2009), there is a certain meditative quality, an Eastern stillness that hovers over these architectural landscapes. Within the solitude of these paintings, one may awaken to being somewhere between the sea and sky. Here the everyday secular world emerges with the artist’s ambient light suggesting an unremitting sanctity and wholeness.

    Robert C. Morgan, a resident of New York City, is an international art critic, artist, curator, and author of many books and catalogs on contemporary art. A frequent lecturer in Venice and friend of the painter, Morgan is Consulting Editor to The Brooklyn Rail and Contributing Editor to Asian Art News in Hong Kong.