Morgan Bulkeley: Nature Culture Clash

By: Charles Bonenti

Morgan Bulkeley pictures our troubled world as a dark comedy. His oil landscapes are high-energy battlefields on which culture, consumerism and nature collide. Birds, bears, deer and bison share the hills, skies and seas with weapons of war, soup cans, cereal boxes, Disney characters and human avatars fighting, playing and laboring. It’s a world of frenzied activity and dim hope. His art is both a personal journal and a narrative on humankind’s complicated, often destructive role in the universe.

Expansive, many-layered and occasionally overstuffed, this retrospective organized by Bulkeley’s Berkshire dealer, Geoffrey Young, is the first on this prolific and erudite artist since one at the deCordova Museum in 1987.

Bulkeley’s figurative artworks are rooted in boyhood fantasies of cowboys and Indians and by his intimate contact with nature while growing up on a Berkshire farm. That vision was honed by the anti-war and civil rights turmoil of the 1960s and ‘70s (part of that time he spent in Boston) and polished by the perspectives (and personal losses) of growing to old age in the Berkshires.

Arranged chronologically and by medium, the show features paintings, drawings, photos, videos, sculptures and bas-reliefs—among the latter wondrously carved and painted wooden masks and panels. Canvases of his Boston neighborhood’s triple-decker tenements offer us tantalizing, voyeuristic glimpses of the occupants within. Other works address a life-changing heart attack and mortality.

Bulkeley credits abstract expressionist Philip Guston as an early goad to pursue the intersection of personal and social realities, and painter Cy Twombly’s calligraphic doodles as inspiring the brushstroke dabs that give his own canvas surfaces spatial animation. Stylistic affinities with Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, even Hieronymus Bosch are evident and further explored in an incisive catalog essay by critic Eleanor Heartney.

Where the exhibition falters is in its density. It would have gained, particularly with the more than 30 kaleidoscopic oil canvases, fromtighter editing and space to contemplate. We are confronted with a dizzying frieze of very busy paintings that cumulatively dull rather than draw our attention.

Bulkeley’s narratives are somber warnings about the fractious, mindless path we walk toward in an uncertain future.

Image: Morgan Bulkeley, Faces in the Breeze, 2010, oil on canvas, 40 x 48”. Courtesy the artist.

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