Painter Morgan Monceaux Interprets the Histories of Our Time
by Cara Ober
Morgan Monceaux has been reviewed in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Three of his paintings have been collected by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Not bad for a Baltimore-based self-taught artist who first picked up a brush in 1990. However, this is just a tiny part of his story.
I visited Monceaux in June, 2015 at his home and studio on Mosher Street in West Baltimore to find out more about the artist whose past is as fantastical and varied as the embellished histories he depicts on canvas.
In past lives, Monceaux has been a preacher, a dancer, a janitor, a Vietnam Vet, and spent close to two decades homeless. He discovered art by accident; he was living in a South Bronx abandoned building and found leftover sign painting supplies. His first series, “George to George: Portraits of 40 American Presidents,” was exhibited in 1992 at Morgan Rank’s gallery in East Hampton, which specializes in ‘primitive American art.’ The exhibit caught the attention of Adam Gopnik, who reviewed it in The New Yorker that year.
Since the American Presidents, Monceaux has created numerous other portrait series in a signature style that is reminiscent of Howard Finster and Robert Colescott, hovering somewhere between naive figuration and Art Brut. The self-proclaimed “American contemporary urban folk artist” has painted jazz singers, African-American cowboys, first ladies, opera divas, international royalty, and others, which are most often based on historical research and seek to combat historical neglect.
Currently, the artist has returned to his religious roots with “Exegesis: The Black Bible Series,” depicting exuberant epic scenes from the Bible. These larger than life canvasses represent pivotal moments of redemption and climax, full of figures, painted with brusque, energetic strokes and embellished by surface collages of fabric, beads, and other found items.
“I’m a storyteller,” explained Monceaux in his studio. “Everything I do is about the glorification of being American, and telling an American story from my own perspective as a Black American.”
Monceaux moved to Baltimore in 2002 to work at a local leather bar and, soon after, purchased the childhood home of Cab Calloway from Calloway’s daughter, Camay Murphy. The building in West Baltimore was previously abandoned and he paid $3,000 for it. Despite the fact that there was no heat or water at the time, it had plenty of room for Monceaux to continue his life’s work. He has continued to paint every day since then with a ferocious drive that is singular in its drive to create.
“This whole house is my studio,” Monceaux admitted, pulling out canvas after canvas. “When I first moved here, there was no heat and no water… I was on chemo… It was pretty bad.”
“But I like Baltimore,” he continued. “Baltimore is centrally located for an artist, near DC and New York, and it’s a fairly inexpensive place to live. The west side is filled with an interesting past. I wish Baltimore were more progressive and not so working class, but it’s okay. It has the potential to be more, but that’s where it is right now.”
“I can do my work here and be very happy here,” he said. “My husband and I recently got married. We just celebrated our first year anniversary this week.”
A few years after relocating to Baltimore, the National Portrait Gallery acquired three of his portraits – Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, and B.B. King – and Michelle Talibah, owner of New Door Creative Gallery in Baltimore, began representing him. In 2007, Monceaux mounted his first solo exhibition at New Door, receiving a review in the New York Times and selling enough work to afford renovations on his house.
He has exhibited regionally at the Creative Alliance, Unexpected Art Gallery, Reagan National Airport, the Newport Art Museum, and AVAM, as well as a recent 2014 solo exhibit at New Door Creative. Although his Baltimore years have been productive, Monceaux has battled cancer twice during this time and says that some of his more grueling painting series, painted in earnest without time off for food and rest, have nearly killed him.
“I always ask other artists if they would be willing to die for their art,” he admits, with a laugh. “I know my answer to this question… If my friends and family hadn’t made me take a break from the Exegesis series, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”
In his home filled with art, Monceaux carefully unwraps canvas after canvas from the Exegesis series, explaining the significance of each Biblical scene in a deep, rich voice that confirms his past experience as a minister. Each painted scene is lovingly detailed and swirling with activity. More significantly, many portray Jesus and the prophets as Black or from African descent, so in many ways, Monceaux’s works not only reinterpret Biblical history, but reclaim it for those who have been most often neglected from history.
In addition to paintings, Monceaux is planning a new narrative series in quilts. “Quilting is my next project,” he said the day of my visit. “I have the maquettes and I will go and buy fabric today. I see them as tapestries… not sewn, but definitely telling a story.”
In the past, Monceaux has also made several series of wood-cut prints, and has just been invited to attend a residency at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey. In order to finance the residency, New Door Creative is hosting a HatchFund campaign, as well as a fundraising reception and exhibit at Nancy Café on July 16 from 6-8 pm.
According to the Printmaking Center, artists can access “fully stocked studios to create art all day and into the night; 7 days a week.” It is highly probable that Monceaux will take full advantage of all the opportunities provided at the residency and create new bodies of work that are thought-provoking, beautiful, and offer new ways to understand our collective history in America.
Studio Portrait of Morgan Monceaux by Justin Tsucalas for the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas Issue 1
Photo by Theresa Keil of Cara Ober and Morgan Monceaux at the BmoreArt magazine release party for Issue 1 at Maryland Art Place.
Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt
Artwork images from the archives of The Morgan Monceaux Artist Trust, Portraits of Morgan by RaRah