Installation view of Morgan Mandalay, On Colonus at Extase. Image credit: Jesse Meredith

The exhibition On Colonus takes its name from the third play of Sophocles, “Oedipus at Colonus”. In this part of Oedipus’ journey he is a blind beggar, already cast out of Thebes, his eyes ripped out by his own hands after realizing his incest and patricide. At the beginning of the play he has been wandering the world to meet his fate, a death at the hands of his brother. In On Colonus, artist Morgan Mandalay’s paintings consider a burning paradise, one with suffering, angst, and determined optimism.

Upon entering Extase, I was simultaneously greeted and pushed away by Mandalay’s dark paintings. With protruding black wooden frames and dark, at times barely contrasted interiors, the work was immediately difficult to engage with. Images of a pink, faceless men in glowing white socks, dark, unbuttoned blue jeans and maybe a watch, bring the viewer into his experience, always at an arm’s length. He sweats, climbs, and almost turns on a light switch. Black paint dominates most of the paintings, glazed interiors fight with the darkness that comes through them. The repeating character is often accompanied by sharp flecks of impasto flame, their centers shellacked with white paint. These flames lick the edges of the canvas, the thin silhouettes of trees, the brush underfoot in the dark exteriors, and a trashcan fire in an exposed pine living room. Their bare ability to light even the darkest of rooms exposes their impotence, and they never reveal the face of the character, just his dark pink complexion.

Morgan Mandalay, Forbidden Fruit 2020 Oil on canvas. 12.5 x 9 inches. Image credit: Jesse Meredith

In Forbidden Fruit (2020),  Adam is standing, intertwined with a fleshy snake, blue jeans and socks cast away. Eve arrives at the scene shocked, resembling a blow-up doll, seemingly a critique of the sexual utilitarian reality of women in Christian creationist stories. Our Adam takes the role of the original sinner, entwined in the sexual temptation of the fruit of knowledge. 

Within On Colonus’ paradise, tongue barely in cheek, there’s a grasping at an unknowable personal history lurking in each painting. What does it feel like to attempt to know your ancestors? To understand their desires, their afflictions, their sin, their struggle. The story of Oedipus, blind and searching, a man of many sins but one of them ignorance, wandering through Mandalay’s burning paradise, questions the possibility of optimism while digging into its necessity. What does it mean to push forward in the dark? Morgan Mandalay brings together Sophocles, The Bible, and a personal narrative to create a series of scenes that play out across time. They map an increasingly painful sense of optimism, one born out of the ultimately human necessity for perseverance through shame.

Morgan Mandalay, AUG 1961 In the Dark 2019 Oil on canvas. 28 x 22 inches. Image credit: Jesse Meredit