Malcolm Morley's unique territory in the history of contemporary art has been staked out by the alchemy that happens when boyish fancy collides (sometimes literally, as in some of his later work where model airplanes are attached to the picture plane) with painting.
Two anecdotes from Morley's childhood help explain the entire arch of his career, as well as the powerful dynamics that animate the painting Onsettant Moie.
The first anectode sheds light on the artist's need to make paintings with so much intensity and color.
"When I was a little boy my grandmother took me to the seaside It was the most beautiful day, with sailboats sailing by, billowing white smoke, stuff like that. I must have been about six or seven. And I went up to a man sitting on a bench and tugged at his coat and said, Oh! Look at the ships, look at the ships, aren't they nice! And he said to me, Can you read, sonny? And I said, Yes, I can read. And he said, Can you read what's on my button? And it said BLIND. ... That's the metaphor of myself as an artist, to show the view to a blind man" (M. Morley, Malcolm Morley: paintings 1965-82, exh. cat. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, UK, 1983, p. 8).
A second anecdote partially illuminates the thread of violence that consistently runs through Morley work. When the artist was a boy in London during the German blitz, a missile blasted into his room and destroyed his favorite model boat. Significantly, the artist repressed the memory/trauma and retrieved it only later in life during psychoanalysis. By spending a lifetime painting boats and planes, he is reclaiming something very specific that was lost to war (B. Adams, Malcolm Morley, exh. cat, Sperone Westwater, New York, 1999, p. 5).
Onsettant Moie comes from body of work the artist did in the 70's based on postcards of cruise ships. This use of "anonymous" images was suggested to Morley by Richard Artschwager, who was using a similar technique, but to very different results.
Morley would take a postcard, grid it out the image , and then painstakingly reproduce it square by square onto a larger canvas. The chosen imagery is purely commercial and soulless. First of all, it's selling itself (postcards for a quarter) and further it is selling a technicolor and sanitized version of life onboard a cruise ship. The banality of the commercial postcard provides the scaffolding onto which the artist builds a much denser inquiry into color, texture and brushstoke, in other words, into the fundamentals of painting.
In addition to Artschwager, other artists such as Vija Celmins and Gerhard Richter were similarly using "common" images as a tool to examine what painting could possibly mean in a world where images had become so commonplace, easily reproduced on any camera, printer or copier.
Few artist handle color as adeptly as Morley. Onsettant Moie with its plangent and crisp colors competing with each other in a riot of small brushstrokes perfectly illustrates what David Sylvester calls "a paradigm of contained violence" (D. Sylvester, Malcolm Morley, exh. cat., Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London, UK, 1990, p. 5) that is at the core of Morley's practice. In front of this painting with its bedazzling visual power, one can imagine perhaps a blind person experiencing its seemingly combustive energy, the heat from the sun. One can also imagine Morley as a sorcerer using all the powers at his disposal to pierce the darkness.