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Ree Morton’s idiosyncratic objects are defiant. They are not so much painting, sculpture, drawing, or found objects, but constellations of framing devices that move between more traditional art forms. Though the connection isn’t obvious, The Plant That Heals May Also Poison, the historically significant survey of Morton’s work at ICA LA reminded me of the recent book Females by Andrea Long Chu. A contemporary critic and writer, Chu’s radical debut book posits that “everyone is female and everyone hates it.”1 Her logic is that female identity is ontological and not biological, being defined by “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another.”2 Morton, a mother of three, made her now acclaimed feminist work for a brief decade before an untimely death at age 40 in 1977. Perhaps reflective of her deferment of artistic life for motherhood for many years, Morton’s artworks indicate a similar displacement of an autonomous self to create space for others. These others are represented in different systems—including botany, cartography, and written language—which are conjoined in the semi-private vessel that is her artwork.
Creating visual, linguistic, and conceptual containers from varied sources, the works in Morton’s retrospective demonstrate a preoccupation with the fluidity of boundaries. This can be seen in early works, such as Game Map Drawing I-VI (ca. 1972-73), which are drawings that demarcate space with solid or dotted lines. A recurring motif, these dotted lines can be seen as not only indicating a fluid boundary but a shape that is contained within another shape. Bozeman, Montana (1974)—the title taken from where Morton was teaching at the time the work was made—is a wallwork in the shape of large parenthesis constructed from lightbulbs mounted on painted and flocked wood. The open circle formed by each half-circle holds boldface words made from rippling, sculpted celastic (plastic-impregnated fabric), flocking, glitter, and paint. Each word held in tension within the parenthesis refers to people and experiences meaningful to Morton, such as “Mike” (the name of a former student), “pool,” “sky,” and “fish.”
Repeated visual elements such as theater curtains, ribbons, and proper nouns act as navigational symbols throughout, indicating the ways that the artworks function as receptacles with open boundaries. Several wallworks, such as Let Us Celebrate While Youth Lingers and Ideas Flow (1975), feature theater curtains, the opening of which indicate the potential separation of the subject from the space of the viewer. Maternal Instincts (1974), another celastic wallwork, is an enlarged upside-down horseshoe reminiscent of a prize ribbon won at a fair. It also functions as two descending arms that hold Morton’s children, represented by three smaller celastic ribbons topped with their initials and a lightbulb. Several wallworks (Beaux series, 1974-1975), conflate the singular (a ribbon) with the dual in sculptural form. The two ribbon ends intertwine, mirror, and double back, reflecting the intertwined and sometimes contradictory convolutions inherent in mapping the relationship between self and other.
Morton’s objects hold others within them, reflecting a self that is paradoxically construed through encompassing others’ desires. An outlier during her brief artistic life, her work spoke to experiences of femaleness generally disdained by the male-centered art world. The exhibition can be read as an antecedent to the kind of deep, generative complications that Chu, a radical queer thinker, articulates in dialogue with histories of femaleness new and old.
Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison runs from February 16–June 14 at ICA LA (1717 E. 7th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90021). Dates subject to change due to current closures. Take a virtual tour of the exhibition here.