Cuba has given the U.S. government lots of headaches, but it has given the rest of us exquisite cigars, hypnotic music, talented ballplayers, and world class writers like Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima, and Reinaldo Arenas. It has also given us a must-see photographer named Abelardo Morell.
“He is willing to look for beauty and emotion in a time that values cool detachment and irony,” says Elizabeth Siegel, who has pulled together an informative but somewhat dry introduction to Morell’s work in the catalogue that accompanies his work on view at the Getty. “His photographs attempt to return to the originary wonder of photography without nostalgia, to convey the excitement of this nineteenth-century invention in a twenty-first-century world inundated with photographic images.”
Morell left Cuba with his parents and sister in 1962 when he was 13. After a few months in Miami and a couple more in New Orleans, the family moved to New York, and that’s where Morell grew up.
Siegel also writes, “In a practice of invention as much as observation, Morell continues to find rich possibilities in the essential strangeness and complexity of images.” What she’s saying is that he finds pleasure in experimentation, and he has a sort of let’s-see-what-happens-when-we-try-this kind of playfulness that’s reminiscent of his former countryman Guillermo Cabrera Infante (author, naturally enough, of Infante’s Inferno).
Morell was on hand at the Getty when this show opened, and he gave the impression of someone you could hang out with and share a few laughs.
Abelardo Morell and his work at the Getty. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
The photographs on display range from interior shots that were taken after the birth of Morell’s first child, and they are shot from a small person’s point of view, to pictures of books or money that bring out their textures in unexpected ways. Morell often juxtaposes images in the same frame and creates a whole new context.
Most notable, however, although there may be more of them than we need, are the camera obscura images, in which light from outdoors enters a darkened room through a tiny aperture and then projects the view from outside onto the wall opposite, although upside down and literally reversed. In times past, such a device would aid the draftsman by converting a three-dimensional view into two. In Morell’s photographs – which can seem like double-exposures – we have scenes of Venice (Italy) or Central Park (New York) plastered up and down against an inside wall of a hotel, office complex, or other structure, with Morell’s own rooms appearing in other prints.
The title of the show is taken from a poem that e.e. cummings wrote in 1944. It ends like this: “ – listen;there’s a hell/ of a good universe next door;let’s go.”
Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door can be seen though Sunday at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in the Getty Center at 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu.