Surface and Sky: Jeffrey Morabito at SFA Projects

Monstera Deliciosa Vase, 2019

Jeffrey Morabito’s show “Birds and Flowers, Vases and Windows” is beautiful and lush and draws you in. There are vibrant colors and wandering lines, rich passages that feel like small works unto themselves–secret gardens waiting to be discovered within each larger piece. But if there are elements that delight the eye, there are ideas that tease the mind. For running through his art and practice is a sense of duality and contradiction where opposites collide and play, posing gentle questions as they merge into new concepts and forms.

As the title suggests, there are landscapes and vases; nature outside and natural elements–birds and flowers–brought in. The vessels are seen close up, the landscapes glimpsed at a distance through windows, generally of a plane. There is a coupling of interior and exterior, near and far, grounded elements and ethereal space. There are surfaces you look at and surfaces you look through, raising the question of whether the painting is a decorative object or a channel to another world.

Airplane Window II, 2018

Perhaps both. The vases emerge from skewed, undulating lines, the windows from thick strokes that call attention to themselves as paint, yet we understand the given, the objects and scene, the points from which departure is made. Looking at them you slip into a space halfway between the real and the imagined, where time slows and gravity exerts less pull. You are anchored yet someplace else, floating, transported.

Airplane Window II, 2018 (detail)

The sense of duality that runs through Morabito’s work also runs through his life. He was born in Bronxville to a Chinese mother and Italian-American father. There were early trips to Hong Kong, but also high school in America, where at one point he even had a band. He loved art, but when he enrolled at Parsons in the 1990s, found that painting was downplayed. He became a successful medical illustrator, then broke with that to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Egyptian Vase, 20 20 (detail)

In 2006, he apprenticed to a master calligrapher in Seoul, South Korea, a move that focused his attention on individual brush strokes and immersed him in a non-Western sensibility. This was followed by a Red Gate Gallery Residency in Beijing, then a stint of teaching art in that city at Capital Normal University. In 2016, he returned to New York to pursue an MFA at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture, and currently works out of the Art Cake Studio Residency Program in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park.

L.A., 2019

If widespread travel has made him a citizen of the world, an open mind and keen eye have allowed him to absorb very different approaches to making art. Yet beneath the wandering and wide-ranging sampling of ideas is the sense of a solid path and clear direction.

Drawings in Jeffrey Morabito’s studio, 2020

Morabito often warms up in his studio by making a circle, an act that in a small way embraces paradox. A circle will always be a circle, yet is never drawn the same way twice. In creating it, there is a familiar shape, a path to follow, yet inevitable departures in terms of brushstroke and intensity.

Morabito sketchbook

Morabito sketches extensively–leaves at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, raptors at a bird sanctuary–gathering ideas he later releases onto canvas, usually completing a painting in a single intense, sometimes marathon session. The drawings are preparation, a honing of focus and intent; the painting almost a performance, a surrender to the immediate moment where chance and control are allowed to meet.

Turkey Vulture, 2019

Though there is a consistent personal style, Morabito’s approach is anything but formulaic. Paint is put on the canvas and taken off. Some colors swirl in rich impasto, others are thinned to near transparency. As Tim Gunn said to designers on “Project Runway,” “make it work.”

Reflection in Windshield, 2018

In his own way, Morabito does. If there are echoes of Matisse in the decorative surfaces, traces of Chinese bird-and-flower painting in terms of subject matter, the end result is entirely his own. It is a mix of vibrance and poise, vases that dance and landscapes that float, tethered to the world yet apart, drifting gently in imagined space.

Birds and Flowers, Vases and Windows” is on view through March 1, 2020 at SFA Projects, 131 Chrystie Street, Thursday-Sunday 1-8pm

Catherine Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer based in New York. She wrote the introductions to Meryl Meisler’s two books, and is currently working on an oral history about recent changes in photography.