Last go-around

CAC’s show may be last chance to see the late Ken Morrow’s remarkable work

ROW<br>The sculpture “Mistress of the Pale Horse” and the painting “Three Generations” are two of the works now on exhibit at the Chico Art Center. Note the hair of the figure in “Mistress": It was made by welding together hundreds of small nails.

The sculpture “Mistress of the Pale Horse” and the painting “Three Generations” are two of the works now on exhibit at the Chico Art Center. Note the hair of the figure in “Mistress": It was made by welding together hundreds of small nails.

Photo By Robert Speer

Twenty years ago Ken Morrow bestrode the Chico art scene like one of his own collosal welded-steel sculptures. He was larger than life, a handsome, muscular brick of a man whose mythopoetic welded figures and luminously colored acrylic paintings were among the most powerful works of art being created in all of Northern California.

When he and his wife, Donna, were killed in an automobile accident in February of 1985, the entire community grieved along with their four grown daughters. In his 27 years at Chico State University, Morrow had taught and motivated thousands of students, all the while building a prolific body of work that had established him as an artist of merit up and down the West Coast. He’d had more than 150 one-man shows, including a 1956 exhibition at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento. His work was in 28 major collections. He was at his creative peak when he died.

Morrow exhibited few of his large sculptures, preferring to keep them at his home on Arbutus Avenue, and after his death they were stored for 20 years in a north Chico barn. A year ago the family pulled them out for a big and critically lauded exhibition at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center. Now several of the works in that show, sculptures and paintings, have been installed at the Chico Art Center for what could be the last local exhibit of this extraordinary artist’s work.

Morrow in his home studio.

Courtesy Of Chico Art Center

The 11 large metal sculptures, with their mythic and totemic references (they have titles like “Icarus,” “Shaman” and “Mistress of the Pale Horse"), are vivid, powerful pieces whose energy seems about to burst forth in movement. For example, “Moses,” the largest of them, shows the legendary leader of the Jews as a tortured soul, his hands raised in supplication, his face twisted in agony, as if beseeching his Lord on behalf of his suffering people. It’s an astonishing piece, both for its power and the way it shows Morrow’s command of a difficult medium.

Another wonderful sculpture is “Mistress on a Pale Horse,” which has a pregnant, naked female astride a horse, her head and hair tossed back, a faint smile on her face, as if she’s looking at the sky (or God). But she’s also holding a sad-faced mask in her hand. Is she contemplating death? If so, why is she pregnant? Why the beatific look on her face and the sad mask? It’s beautiful and mysterious at the same time.

In contrast to the sculptures’ intense energy, the paintings have a quiet, almost serene presence. They’re very large, in the range of 6 feet square, and simple in their depiction of from one to three figures against a flat ground. Morrow painted the canvases on the floor, using pieces of cardboard to manipulate thin acrylic washes of various colors that he layered atop one another to give them a luminous quality.

Morrow once said that he never knew what he was going to end up with when he began a painting. He was fascinated by Jung’s idea of mythic archetypes and sought them, or rather sought to be open to channeling them, as he painted.

Some of the titles are indicative: “Vision Seeker,” for example, and “Night Dancer” show single figures with almost indistinguishable faces against colorful two-dimensional backgrounds. Their emphasis is on the play of color and shape, not on any specificity of content. In that sense they approach abstraction while retaining the archetypal power only figures can give.

The most moving two-dimensional piece, however, is a large black-and-white charcoal rendering titled “Departure.” If memory serves, this is the last work Ken Morrow did. It shows two wraith-like figures, their arms billowing like wings behind them, their faces lightly touching as if kissing. In retrospect, it seems both a premonition and a sweet farewell, a deeply touching testimony to his love for his wife in a world where nothing is permanent and life can end at any moment.