Eleanor Moreton’s New York solo debut presented 10 small to medium-size reworkings (all 2010) of compositions by once-famous 19th-century painters, such as the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse and the Austrian realist Ferdinand Georg WaldmuÌ?ller. Moreton, who completed an MA in art history between receiving her undergraduate and graduate painting degrees, has long used motifs, including fairies and royalty, that tap into the Northern European collective unconscious. Here, floral still lifes, dashing Romantic gentlemen with high collars and images of the Arthurian legend of the Lady of Shalott served to illustrate archetypes underlying the imagination of Northern Europe before World War I.
Moreton, like her countryman Merlin James (both are in their 50s), has developed a loose, painterly style that stands in contrast to her old-fashioned source images. She deploys color in an improvisational way to create a kind of psychological dream version of the 19th-century compositions. Her works appear as almost Woolfian portrayals of a reality filtered through the mind and memory.
There’s no telling which components will be depicted opaquely and which transparently. All is in relative order in FuÌ?r WaldmuÌ?ller (2), in which an oblique tabletop pops out in front of the transparent vase of flowers resting on it due to the opacity of the cerulean blue with which it’s painted. Yet in Ein romantischer Mann (AS), Venetian red underpainting creates a glowing outline at the seams and buttons of the gentleman’s dark green and blue topcoat. That same red shines through the shadow of the eyes, while a more opaque vermilion forms the hair, making it the most solid part of the man. His shadow on the wall behind him is conjured not by the usual darker value but by a greater translucency in the blue paint overlaid on the ground. A light patch appears amid the head’s shadow, seeming to animate it with inner life.
Particularly haunting were three paintings based on depictions of the Lady of Shalott by Waterhouse. Two focus on the same moment from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, when the heroine turns to look directly at Lancelot, away from the mirror she’s cursed to see the world through, and sets in motion her own death. Both of Moreton’s versions show the Lady of Shalott beginning to dissolve. In each, transparency defines the figure: in one, the outlines of her nude body show through her dress; in the other, her upper half consists of an area of warm underpainting left without further detailing, her outline defined by the flat shapes of the windows and wall behind her. In Leaves Upon Her, Falling Light (green), the Lady of Shalott, present in Waterhouse’s original, is gone, dissolved like the background reeds and trees into a softly modulated green haze, but the boat that carries her to her death and the tapestry hanging off its side remain, reflecting off the water.
Photos: Eleanor Moreton: Leaves Upon Her, Falling Light (green), 2010, oil on canvas, 13 3/4 by 17 3/4 inches; at Jack Hanley.