Mark Morrisroe; Moving images that belie their brutal undertones

The Open Eye Gallery’s Biennial show features an artist who strugggled to separate fact from fiction, writes Laura Davis

LIFE-threatening illness would not prevent Mark Morrisroe from continuing to create art work. In his last years, as his health deteriorated from the effects of AIDS, he would turn his hospital bathroom into a darkroom and make photograms.

These richly coloured images, composed of material he found around him – magazine cuttings, X-rays, torn photographs – are both as intriguing and as elusive as Morrisroe himself.

A collection of these final works form one of Open Eye Gallery’s three Biennial exhibitions.

Also on display are Kohei Yoshiyuki’s documentary photographs of the – often seedy – nightlife in Tokyo parks during the 1970s and New York-born Sinta Tantra’s installation Together Yet Forever Apart, which transforms the exterior of the Mann Island gallery.

“The images we’re showing are so moving and beautiful but there’s also something incredibly brutal and quite violent about them,” says Open Eye curator Karen Newman.

“He would often use X-ray images of his own body that the hospital took as a record of its decline.”

Massachusetts-born Morrisroe is both a larger-than-life character and an enigma – remembered as much for his mystery as for his engaging personality. Much of this is down to the artist himself, who largely cultivated his own myth.

Was he, as he claimed, the illegitimate child of Albert DeSalvo, the infamous Boston Strangler who pled guilty to murdering 13 women in the 1960s? Nobody really knows, although it’s true that DeSalvo was, for a time, landlord to Morrisroe’s and his alcoholic mother.

With his atypical upbringing and difficult teenage years, the artist had no need to falsify a backstory.

In 1975, at the age of 16, he became a prostitute to pay for his own apartment and high school graduation.

At 17, he was shot by a customer resulting in a spinal chord injury that left Morrisroe with a limp for the rest of his life.

The following year he met his first love, fellow artist Jack Pierson, and became the centre of a lively circle of art students, who created work together, experimented with drugs and were open in their sexuality.

In 1986, some two years after moving to Jersey City to develop his career in New York, he tested positive for HIV.

Morrisroe died in 1989, at the age of 30, leaving behind a body of work that included Polaroids, Super-8 films, photographic portraits and nudes, images created using his “sandwich” technique of exposing a black and white negative taped to a colour negative.

His early death combined with complications with his estate stifled his reputation and the exhibition at Open Eye is one of just a few recent opportunities to to see the artist’s work as it finally begins to receive the recognition it deserves.

THE Mark Morrisroe exhibition, supported by Liverpool’s Homotopia festival of queer arts and culture, is at the Open Eye Gallery until November 25. His rarely seen Super-8 films The Laziest Girl in Town (1981), Hello from Bertha (1983) and Nymph-O-Maniac (1984) are being screened at FACT’s Picturehouse cinema on November 22.

Liverpool Post, September 13, 2012