Artist and Director of the Bradbury Museum at Arkansas State University
Several years ago, on an early frosty morning at a foreign train station, a woman said goodbye to her lover. He boarded the train. She remained alone on the platform. They did not see each other again for quite some time. It was a heartbreaking but beautiful human experience that often comes to mind when I see the work of Ashley Morgan.
Morgan's work has a life of its own. It decomposes and disintegrates before our eyes. Her dramatic use of decaying detritus transports us to another place and time where our workaday lives are forgotten. Her elaborate environments constructed from vintage objects and aged architectural elements suggest a scene from a foreign film. There are no subtitles and you don’t speak the language, nevertheless you are still able to follow the storyline.
In I Carved Your Name into a Tree, Morgan makes reference to the age-old practice of creating a lasting display of affection. She has roughly hewn alternating Xs and Os into a wooden chair railing. In this case the “tree” will not grow over and heal the artist’s marks. These wounds are permanent. Her selection of a delicate font transforms her coarse cuts from what could be a mere collection of notches denoting past loves into something much more dignified. As subtle as Morgan’s work can be, this simple patterning could also appear to be just that, ornamentation on molding. But through her careful and thoughtful use of craftsmanship, concept, material and imagery, Morgan manages to quietly make it apparent that this is no ordinary object.
In Such and Such Street she creates the illusion of dripping water by casting resin onto the interior panes of two worn window frames. Is this rain that has somehow seeped through the glass and, by extension, into our lives? Or is it a cry for help or pain, as tears fall from the old and weary windows? This is one of Morgan’s great strengths, her ability to make surreal objects and vaguely dream-like scenarios somehow seem logical and possible.
In other work she presses fresh flowers, arranged in intricate patterns, into paper to form impermanent but lavish wallpaper. She fashions tiny, fragile bones into lacy necklaces. In Stained Window (honeybee) she applies a thin, gridded coat of honey to the surface of a large window, producing lovely, albeit short-lived, “stained” glass. We are drawn to her work because of its familiar qualities. We are delighted by it because of its expression of the human condition.
Unlike artists who strive for climate controlled and acid-free conditions, Morgan does not lament the ephemeral qualities in her work. She embraces them. Her use of rotting and crumbling materials aptly makes each of her objects function as a contemporary vanitas. They gently remind us that our lives are short, our loves are great, and time marches on.