From art school star to rising star of the art world | Bostonia
In May, Oscar Morel graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in painting and some anxious thoughts as he looked to the future.
“Whenever you graduate from something, the question is always, what next?” says Morel (CFA’22), now back in his family home in New York. “It’s dark; it’s the scariest question anyone can ask you.
It’s a common concern, but in fact, the future looks bright for Morel, a multimedia artist who spent his time at the College of Fine Arts creating collages based on scenes from his Bronx neighborhood. From July 14 to 30, his MFA work is exhibited alongside that of his classmates at the Morgan Lehman Gallery in Manhattan. In late summer he will complete a residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), and in late fall he will travel to New Hampshire to begin a coveted MacDowell Fellowship.
At CFA, Morel studied under “forces of nature” like Lucy Kim, associate professor of art, lecturer Paul Karasik, and Josephine Halvorson, professor of painting and holder of a graduate chair in painting. He took advantage of his environment – the studios on campus – by reusing discarded paintings from other students and incorporating them into his collages. His efforts have seen impressive rewards. In her final semester, her work was included in two exhibitions – one at the historic Piano Crafts Gallery in Boston’s Southside and the other at BU’s Faye G., Jo and James Stone Gallery – and in May the boston globe named him one of its “Six Art School Stars From Around Boston To Watch In 2022″. At 24, he was the youngest on the list.
Reusing discarded canvases “was a form of collaboration I had with myself that other artists didn’t realize,” he says. “Now, leaving this space of immediate collaboration, how will I find it? It’s going to be interesting; maybe I’ll start making my own canvases.
Morel’s introduction to collage was a combination of inspiration and necessity. The World notes that when he arrived in the city, he brought with him “enough money to pay the rent for an apartment – and that’s about it”, which left him destitute to buy art supplies.
The canvases he used for his plays were either given to him by students who would otherwise have thrown them away, or were not claimed from the college studios. Morel discovered that collage, as a form, lends itself to both cleaning and reuse. Eventually, he focused his technique and conceptual process around recontextualizing materials, which he likens to how a music producer uses samples to create a hit song. In Morel’s case, he uses the materials to create distinctive slice-of-life scenes. His collage Knock at the door depicts a man sitting in his apartment with his dog, and Lobby furnace rental shows a harrowing incident between two police officers and a civilian.
“It’s fun to come and go and make connections in my head,” says Morel. “I don’t give myself any restrictions.”
His collage technique begins by sketching out the scene and its inhabitants, which gives him the opportunity to draw on his vast experience in drawing and painting. He thinks the canvas as if it were a play: the characters need costumes, poses and stories in addition to form, color and shadow.
“I take a lot of inspiration from artists like Titian and Carvaggio – all those melancholy, melodramatic poses,” he says. “It’s really fun to taste these positions and apply them.”
Once he has mapped out a scene, Morel begins to incorporate his salvaged canvases. In Knock at the door, for example, he layered slices of mottled black for the dog’s shiny coat; in You go for me and I’m taboo he put together mottled purples and reds for a woman’s skin.
The layering step “is just adding canvas to the canvas,” he says. “I look at people’s works and I think, oh, this color works well as a skin tone.”
The iconic scenes he created at CFA are modeled after the Bronx streets of his youth. Influenced by his understanding of the cityscape, he sought to construct a world where familiar faces haunt local street corners and any figure could be your neighbor, your uncle or yourselves – the kinds of people who are not often represented in the art world.
“A lot of people don’t understand that the Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the city,” Morel says. “I want to share my story in spaces that are hyperspecific to how they are understood.”
As a student, Morel’s sense of observation was on high alert during his trips back to New York. What he saw was a duality between the familiar Bronx of his youth and a place of deepening economic strife.
“When I come back, I’m excited to see my friends again and be back in this space,” he says. “But also, I tend to forget about the homelessness and the poverty in my neighborhood and how prevalent it is…it got worse over time.”
In one case, which he later immortalized in Rental of the hall furnace, Morel saw two police officers talking to a homeless man in the hallway of his apartment building. When he told his mother about the incident, she thought that the homeless man was most likely looking for warmth on a winter’s day.
“At first it was a bit frustrating for me in a very selfish way, because I was home during the break and I didn’t want to see this,” he says, but his mother’s explanation helped him get rid of “the common experience of seeing those faces and bodies in that situation,” and helped him empathize with the man who sought shelter from the cold.
“Don’t tell this story [through collage] would have been the same as walking past and not telling my mom about it,” he says. “In a way, I was trying to say what she told me.”
A lot of people don’t understand that the Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the city, so [my art] becomes a way of showing a voice that we don’t see.
Morel says his greatest artistic motivation is “a sense of place,” and his process of constructing theatrical scenes through collage allows him to capture moments in time. He seeks to recreate what street photographers like Garry Winogrand and Vivian Maier have come across.
The irony of this practice is that for several years, Morel has not stayed in one place for very long. Between four undergraduate years at DePauw University and his master’s program at BU, he had to draw on memory and instinct for his Bronx collages. Boston’s tree-lined streets and manicured lawns in the Midwest are pretty, he says — and “a needed change of pace” — but they haven’t inspired him the way New York does.
In mid-August, Morel will be on the move again. This time, he will leave the Bronx for rural North Adams, Massachusetts, where he will complete a month-long residency at the Mass MoCA. Then he’ll head north to Peterborough, NH, where his MacDowell Fellowship will begin Nov. 3.
Will so much time away from the Bronx affect his art? He’s not sure, he says, but he’ll keep an open mind about the kinds of places that can inspire him.
“I think it’s really going to depend on the timing; maybe I’ll lean into it and start doing forests, or maybe I’ll want the city so badly that I’ll just do bricks and concrete,” he says. “Leaving places with growth potential and feeling like you have more to do is better than anything else – just feeling like you’re not done.”
And maybe he’ll stop worrying about the future.
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