Nearly two decades ago, I attended a gallery opening with my then-boyfriend Sabin Howard.
Sabin introduced a slim, bright-eyed man with an elfin, perspicacious gleam. Sabin said, “John is a painter.” Sotto voce, to me alone, he added, “A good one.”
Rare words of praise from my discerning husband. Sabin evaluates other artists solely on the basis of the merits of their work: their draughtsmanship, their form sense, their compositions, their design sense. He isn’t swayed by the trappings of renown, the monkey-see-monkey-do glitz of the artiste of the month, or such pretensions as ‘historical importance.’ Sabin cares only about the excellence of the work and the skill of the artist. The artist must have superb technique as well as something to say.
I stepped closer to John Morra, hoping to quiz him and discover what makes him a good artist. Isn’t that a fascinating question? Was he born with extra heat in the fire of his creativity? Additional visual sensitivity or superfine manual dexterity?
And, tipping my hat to Sabin, what drives a person to undertake years of discipline in a craft so that she or he develops innate talent and excels?
I wanted to ask Morra about his training at the New York Academy of Art. Instead, John and I fell to discussing the Gnostic Gospels. I enjoy them, and I love Elaine Pagels’ writings about them. Morra approached Gnosticism with rather more consideration and nuance. We ended up in a spirited debate…
“Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” The Gospel of Thomas, saying 70.
It’s a poignant quote, peculiarly applicable to artists. They must bring forth their personal, human vision in order to create. This is the soul of art. It fully permeates and also radiates from the physical construct, whether that’s a painting, sculpture, tango, jazz riff, sonnet, or karesansui garden, just as the subtle human energy field permeates and radiates from the human flesh-and-blood body.
Later, looking over a catalogue of Morra’s work, I thought about what he was bringing forth from within himself. His versatility struck me immediately. Morra paints still lifes, landscapes, and even figures.
What first compelled my attention was his rendering of light on glass. It is superb. “Honey Crisps” with its corked wine bottle showcases Morra’s masterful technique. A bright, delineated rectangle on the crest of the stout bottle reveals where the window above lets in the daylight. The curving green glass with light dispersed over it is a luscious, illusionary surface, reflecting the apples sprawled alongside. A bread roll elongates in perspectival distortion. If you peer deeply, you can see the artist himself, facing his subject. He is reflected, reflecting.
It is the artist who imbues the objects with symbolism, as bread, wine, and apples evoke the human condition in all of its missing-the-mark with hunger and ecstasy.
The design of this piece is inherently pleasing. The tan color of the jug in the background is picked up by the tan bread roll, a strong diagonal of upper left to lower right hand corner. Both are textural: the tan jug is only partly glazed, so it is smooth up by its mouth and rough down from about its midpoint; the crispy bread crust sports a faint dusting of flour. The curve of finger holds on the mouth of the jug are repeated by the inward puckering of the tasty roll into a seam.
There’s an elegance and refinement about the arrangement of Morra’s objects. In “Honey Crisps,” apples cluster together in a lopsided, naturalistic pyramid. These apples are both full and imperfect: small discolorations and bruises stipple the fruit even as the plump red-and-green cheeks press outward. That’s the internal, expansive pressure of sweet fruit, ripe for eating. Indeed, roundness of form is a recurring motif.
Two of Morra’s influences are surely Vermeer and Corot. In truth, I am not a fan of Corot. I acknowledge his skill: Corot had chops. It’s just that I perceive a lassitude in Corot that leaves me lukewarm.
Vermeer, however. Ah, Vermeer. To look at a Vermeer painting is to fall in and in and in, to fall in love and to fall through trap doors I didn’t even know existed into another, implicit, unfolding universe. At least for me. Art is the representation of human spiritual consciousness, and the spiritual consciousness I experience in a Vermeer painting speaks a sacred language of space, dimension, and richly-hued color. For the domestic scenes that were his subjects, this language is both immanent and transcendent.
Jesus says: “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you and outside of you.” The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3, 1–3.
Inside of the artist and outside of the artist, imminent and transcendent, these interpenetrating realms are most fully embodied by Morra’s fascinating Mertz paintings. These works consist of arrangements of vacuum tubes, machine tubes, appliances, bottles — and sometimes eggs, those perfect forms. On his website, Morra describes them thus:
I would call Mertz an attempt to expand the genre of the still-life into the realm of landscape, cityscape, and, in a certain way, diorama and set design. Instead of merely showing a table or flat surface with things on it, I try to build different layers of space, with immediate foreground objects one “looks past” (repousser in landscape), then near, middle and very far-away distance. Why, then is this still-life painting? Because everything in a Mertz painting, with the exception of far-distance buildings or clouds, is observed in my studio the same way an artist would observe a traditional arrangement of fruit.
The Mertz painting have a cool, Edwardian, industrial sensibility. They’re structured and orderly and atmospheric and wildly experimental. In some sense, they’re academic exercises — except that the objects take on personalities, and often considerable wit. Through light and form, the objects effect a dialogue between themselves so that they are relational.
Mertz #10 has a celestial peacefulness with the blue sky, floating blue ball, and blue beaker. Morra’s trademark exquisite light-on-glass reflectivity is readily apparent. The objects, shown from a low vantage point, take on a monumentality while they speak to each other. If you stepped into the painting, you wouldn’t sweat in this universe: it’s a world of elevated consciousness. Morra’s painting is a visionary portal into another part of the multiverse.
That doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the achievement of great talent after decades of hard work.
Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things…Split a piece of wood and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 75. These words attributed to the great Rabbi from Nazareth have that strange relevance to the artist’s vision and the creative process of art. In a painting, the consciousness of the artist is the light over all things. Split a piece of wood in representational space, and there is the consciousness of the artist. That’s what enchants and uplifts us. That’s the grace in good art, in real art. Morra bestows that grace.
Final note: Buy art. The pandemic has been hard on all of us. Many young visual artists are struggling. It doesn’t have to be Renaissance-quality art, though if you can afford that, good for you. It’s inherently fulfilling to find a local artist and choose a painting or a sculpture that enhances your life. Seek out a drawing or a watercolor that intrigues you, strikes you with its beauty and grace, or even makes you question the universe. Call an artist you know and commission her to paint your daughter or your nephew or your grandson with his favorite monster truck. Buy art.