“Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On” at Artists Space

Artists Space [Mar. 9-May 1], “Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On,” curated by Richard Birkett and Stefan Kalmár.

Everything I read about Mark Morrisroe begins with the tragic nature of the artist’s origins – my review wont be any different.  Born to a drug-addicted mother, he began working the streets by the tender age of 13. He walked with a pronounced limp after being shot in the back by a client. After graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with honors he began to explore and capture hustlers, lovers, friends and even himself with his Polaroid camera – with over 2000 found in his archive. Shortly after leaving Boston for New York the artist died of AIDS-related illness at age of 30.

Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On, is the second exhibition Artists Space to include Morrisroe’s work – the first was shortly after his death in 1989 by friend and collaborator Nan Goldin.  The current retrospective is a throw back to a bygone era of the 1980s when drugs, drag queens and disease were common fixtures in an art market dominated by young, hip and, sadly, tragic figures. As such, there is a strange nostalgic feel dominating the space, a desire to go back in time, to reclaim and make the past ever more present.

Mark Morrisroe "Self Portrait (to Brent)" 1982

The photographs are intimate portraits of friends. They tend to not hide away from the camera but engage with the lens. Subjects are scantily clad, often emaciated and always young. Occasionally illegible and crude handwriting is scrawled across the borders of the photographs, identifying the sitter or the setting. In Self Portrait (to Brent), 1982, the artist writes: “Taken to answer sex add [sic], a little something for all those words of wisdom that youve been offering me all these years.” The image, dated to 1980, shows the artist emerging from the shower still wet. His acne riddled face  hardly distracts from his hairless ephebic physique. The image cuts off just above the artist’s genitals, teasing viewers viewers who desire to see more. The sexual promiscuity intended by the image is now a staple of gay youth culture today where websites like craigslist, adam4adam and manhunt allow them to publicize their images freely and anonymously.

Mark Morrisroe "Untitled" ca. 1981

On the other end of the sexual spectrum, like his contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe, Morrisroe captures the underground S&M scene. In Untitled (1981), a figure tightly wrapped in plastic and package tape, his face is completely covered and a single breathing tube emerges from his mouth. Yet unlike Mapplethorpee, this image is not posed in a studio, it is candid, raw and, like Morrisroe, rougher around the edges.

The artist’s death overshadows the exhibition, noted in a series of three photograms of X-rays of the artist’s torso in silhouette. They are a bleak reminder of the ephemeral nature of life. A body once so active and living, imagined in hundreds of Polaroids is now made susceptible to the disease that would eventually claim the artist’s life. No image is more powerful then the artist’s self portrait from 1989.  Lying naked on a bed, his body is noticeably ravaged by the disease. His physique is gone and the confidence and cockiness of his youth is all by a distant memory.   The room is dirty, cluttered with bottles and clothes and a half drunk cup of coffee on a night stand. His mattress rests on the bare floor and the sheets are thrown about. There is nothing neat and pretty here. There is no attempt by Morrisroe to monumentalize himself, and neither does Artists Space. The exhibition reads as a personal scrap book, picking together images from a decade’s worth of work that comes to a tragic and quiet end.

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