On Colonus

Currently on view is a solo exhibition by a Chicago Artist, Morgan Mandalay On Colonus at Extase, located in an apartment gallery in Ukrainian Village, Chicago, IL. Extase is run by Budgie Birka-White, who graduated from Master of Arts from the Department of Arts History, Theory, and Criticism from SAIC(School of the Art institute of Chicago) in 2019. Extase is committed to exhibitions and lectures, and through these, “is invested in community building and in facilitating and nurturing relationships,” according to the Extase website.


All images courtesy of Jesse Meredith

On Colonus is comprised of 6 small to mid scale oil paintings hung thoughtfully on the wall in an intimate room. Their scale and muted color palette immediately brings the viewers just inches away from the paintings trying to grasp what is going on within the paintings. With closer investigation, it is prevalent that each paintings are packed with narratives, personal ones; “In these paintings, a home has been built inside of paradise; a memory. In this home, I am attempting to find my place; but as memory is filled with shadows and gaps and holes, I am wandering blind attempting to construct this home and construct this narrative of myself.” Visit Extase’s website to read the full press release.


Morgan Mandalay, “Memory Palace”, 2020, Oil on canvas


Here’s what came up in a conversation with Morgan:

I first encountered your work when I was visiting UCSD(University of California San Diego) for a grad school interview in 2017. I think you were in the final year of grad school. How has your work progressed since then? What do you still carry from that period in your work today?

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since then to be honest. I finished my master’s with my thesis exhibition and essay Scene of Shipwreck, which used the same source material, the French government report “Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816,” that Théodore Géricault used for painting his famous Raft of the Medusa, originally displayed under the title Scene of Shipwreck at the 1819 Paris Salon. I wanted to use this historical material as a metaphor for a political and personal moment that seemed to relate to the feeling of being left adrift on a raft, as was the case in the maritime tragedy of the French frigate Medusa. The exhibition consisted of 5 paintings of the ocean at night, which served as kind of stage flats that sat atop makeshift rafts. Each raft was thought of as a kind of three-person exhibition, incorporating the works of other artists into my own, that opened up themes that echoed throughout the survivors harrowing tales: collaboration, collision, illusion, cannibalism and homonym. I basically wanted to know how civil society could avoid the fate of the 140 passengers on the raft that perished.

So that’s a long descriptor of what I was doing then to create a point of contrast. Um, things that have changed. In the past couple of years I haven’t done as much incorporating other artists work in with my own, although it’s not something I’m opposed to, I just haven’t had any projects that felt right for. After I finished school I did two more projects like that, one that was more collaborative between my partner and I at DAMA in Turin, Italy and a show at Et. al etc. that incorporated the work of other artists in a built out space in the middle of the gallery.

To a certain degree I think those projects can stem from feeling insecure about being a Painter, but in the past few years I’ve started to accept that title a bit more. It feels like less of a dirty word. I still do a lot of historical research for each body of work, and am still tying those histories and mythologies to the personal and political when I am making pictures.

I went to school with a lot of painters and I remember you were one of the only painters in that program. I imagine our experiences in grad school were totally different. How do you think being surrounded by truly diverse peers affected your work?

Hmmm I mean, like I said, at the time, being in school, especially at the beginning, I was really really resistant to being dubbed a Painter. Haha I would say I used the language of painting to make art. But I think as I became more turned off to a kind of artistic elitism that I felt I had fallen into, I began to more deeply embrace being a painter. But to be honest there were other painters there, very different painters than me….generally a lot more skilled and precise to my clumsy messiness but I feel super lucky to have studied with some great painters like Joshua Miller, Kara Joslyn, Angie Jennings, Julian Rogers, Aitor Lajarin, and Joshua Saunders.

I also feel grateful, though, for the intellectual diversity you’re talking about. This is a somewhat hard question because I also don’t know what the opposite situation would be like. But I personally am excited and energized by ideas that feel foreign to me, so it had that as a benefit. I think more than the diversity of the art department though, it was just being at a non-art school that got me excited.

When I first started there I’d go to the campus pub and talk to engineers who were making drones or biochemists working in labs and it would blow my mind, the differences yes, but also the similarities. And then working with undergrad students from those other fields and helping them see the usefulness of artistic thinking and me learning to understand how other disciplines think about and through creativity.


Morgan Mandalay, “In the Garden of Hesperides”, 2019, Oil on canvas

Your paintings appear to be carefully constructed. How much of what you depict is planned vs spontaneous or in the moment? Do you have concrete things in mind you want to convey before starting a body of work?

Thanks. I generally have some kind of basic framework that I’m starting with, like, “this will have a tree right in the middle being shaken that both bisects and unifies the picture” or “these bodies will converge to make two overlapping triangles” but not much else. A general rule in my paintings, though, is that the subject of the paintings is contained, blocked, or restricted by something that lies on surface, something the viewer has to look past to try to catch a fugitive object. Each body of work is based around these “screens.” In this developing body of work at Extase the screen is just darkness, something like try to see something in the dead of night. In the past though it’s been looking through dense tree branches, or through a cage, or smoke, or tossing waves.

Along with that there’s usually a research aspect to the paintings that I’m trying to convey. So it’s not totally intuitive, there’s definitely these anchoring points, but those anchors then give me a lot of freedom to explore tensions in composition, surface, mark making and all the other fun stuff of painting.


Morgan Mandalay, “Reflection Underground”, 2019, Oil on canvas


Detail from “Reflection Underground”

Your body of work reads like a book - a fiction. Each painting is a chapter. There is so much to deconstruct in each painting. They are loaded with symbolism, suspense, drama, history, and the unknown. Do you see your work in this way?

[...] I think they are narrative and I certainly hope for them to be very layered in the way you described. I’m married to a writer so I think I’d be in trouble for calling my paintings books!

But like I said, there’s a lot of historical and textual research that goes into the work, so I’m always loading in a lot of Easter eggs, but they are also super personal paintings so there starts to be a conflating of the historical and personal or the two start sitting side-by-side creating a kind of confusion that feels a lot more like the inside of my head than maybe the clarity of supposedly subjective sources.

I’m looking at your 2018 works shown in Klowden Mann in 2019. You used saturated colors that immediately grab viewers’ attention. Your paintings in On Colonus appear more personal and intimate to me in both scale and subject matter. The color palette is much more muted and I found myself just an inch away from the paintings. Did you create this new body of work primarily with Extase’s intimate space in mind, or did it evolve over time to take on those characteristics regardless of the exhibition space? Or both?

Those were really just natural evolutions. After the last exhibition I had, a two person show with Chloe Seibert at No Place in Columbus, OH, I had wanted to make work that felt more grounded in the real and personal in a way that was stripped of the historical and mythological references, or at least hid behind them a little less, than previous work. My work had always had some to do with attempts to reconstruct memory through external objects, but in this body of work I’m trying to use places familiar to my own body to construct a memory palace with secret passages and hidden chambers.

The scale of this work came from the work in this show starting as tests honestly. I wanted to see how I could construct these spaces for these ghost memories to inhabit. The muted, dark, color palette was a way to create a mask. I was thinking of these spaces, constructions from distorted or buried memories of my past, as being seen or dug out of and through the dark.

The lemon makes an appearance in several of your paintings. What is the sign of hope you’re trying to convey in these works with the lemons? How does this fruit tie in w/ this hope and the garden of eden story? Does the lemon represent a forbidden fruit of hope?

The lemon for me, yes, developed from my paradise paintings but it was also in the raft paintings. I started thinking about it as this last resort salvation fruit. Like, on the raft of the Medusa, one person hid the fact they had this lemon from everybody else and would suck a small bit of fruit from it to survive. But of course, no one just eats a lemon straight. It’s too sour. So it’s this fruit that can save you and give you the nourishment to survive, but you have to be really desperate.


Morgan Mandalay, “Forbidden Fruit”, 2020, Oil on canvas


Detail from “AUG 1961 In the Dark”, 2019, Oil on canvas

Do you see your work continuing in this current direction?

Yes, I’ve thought of the show at Extase as the start of a new body of work for a show in early 2021 with my gallery in LA, Klowden Mann. So really what Budgie and Extase has allowed is a great platform for me to experiment, because you’re right. As much as I try to draw parallels, and to me there are a lot between this body of work and others, it’s visually quite different. One thing I do plan to evolve with this work is that I plan to scale the work up.

I always see you staying productive; running your own space, having exhibitions, curating shows, etc.... Any forthcoming projects or exhibitions you would like to share?

Haha it can be exhausting! We have a couple of exciting shows lined up for Fresh Bread, our first group show in April and then a solo show of Ross Simonini in June. Right now I currently have a show I curated up at Arts of Life in Glenview, IL of rock’n’roll and landscape paintings called “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock’n’Roll.” I am also in a group show at 1969 gallery in NYC called “Adventure Painting.” But other than that I think I’m taking a little breather to really focus in the studio for the next couple of months, which I’m truly excited for!

On Colonus INFO

TitleOn Colonus
Dates01/18/20 through 02/22/20 by appointment
Opening reception: 1/18 6-9pm
Closing reception: 2/22 6-9pm
Address2523 W. Chicago #2