Brain Crash: Head of Joseph Morales

By Lee Anderson

I visit Joseph Morales as he prepares for his upcoming show at The Brooklyn Art Studios, a new art space located in The Greenpoint Industrial Center. His art studio is not what I expected, especially after having visited his other studio in Queens over two years ago. That was a dim-lit room located up a lung-testing series of stairs, the hallways choked with paint blotches. The ceilings were cavernous, which they had to be to house Morales’ paintings, some of them over eight feet high.

His new studio is cleaner, brighter, no stairs. Two faceless mannequins regard me mutely as I enter, both wearing T-shirts with designs Morales created for his new clothing line. Other Morales T-shirts lay in neat, folded stacks on a table near the entrance. The only work station appears to be a drafting table against the wall. Not an easel or a wipe rag in sight.

But it’s more than just his studio which seems different. Morales himself seems different, more serious, like he’s figured something
out. I take a bench and chat with him while he swivels listlessly in a white-furred office chair. A small oscillating fan is our only defense from the pressing mid-day heat outside.

When did you decide to become an artist?
See, I still don't think that's happened to me. It's more something that you just do. It's another life, another thing that's part of you. It wasn't like I woke up one day and decided this was what I would do. Most of the time, I don't even feel like I'm an artist. I guess what we do as people who create things is we use what we have in our heads - images of memories of life experiences - this is all just narration. You can call it art or call it being an artist. It's irrelevant.

So you see yourself as being more than just an artist?
Yeah, why not? Life is big. And it's short. People just want to peg you and put you on the spot as one thing or another because it makes them feel more comfortable with themselves.  They want to call you an artist or a musician when you really can be both. You can be anything.

What would you like for someone who goes to one of your shows to come away feeling?

It's interesting because they're making up the posters and everything for my show now, right? So they're asking me for a title to the show and the first thing I came up with was making it a: "Hello, my name is…" Because I want to make it exactly that: An introduction for the viewer or attendee to who it is that I am, as an artist and as a person. I want them to come away thinking, "Hey, here's a guy who has a strong, artistic vision and a voice and he's exercising it."

So why do you paint what you paint? Why not paint horsies and butterflies or something Target would sell?
(Laughs, then pauses.) This is what I'm doing honestly from my heart. You have to look at my stuff with an open heart and an open mind. I mean, it's not for everyone. And that's the beauty of it. I'm okay with that. You can’t win them all.

What do you think about when you're painting?
I just listen to music mainly. Music is a big influence on me.

Who do you listen to?
I listen to Sun Ra, Coltrane, Miles. And Biggie. I've been listening to Biggie a lot. I like Jay. Jay's cool. It depends on the mood I'm going for. But music definitely inspires me. It gets my creative juices flowing and it can set the tempo of what it is I want to do visually.

How has being Hispanic influenced your work?
It's influenced my work a lot. For instance, I did a painting - about 7 1/2 feet tall - for Celia Cruz. She has a song about this Cuban villager who happens to be the gravedigger. When his daughter dies, he has to bury his daughter, and I have a daughter, so that's a heavy topic for me. I wanted to tackle that, so I came up with this painting and it really holds a place in my heart. I came up with an image of a man wearing a guayabera, which is a peasant shirt that's embroidered. And he's wearing a Fedora hat with a feather in it and, up-top, he's a marionette. And he's holding his daughter over a hole that he's just dug, right? And if you look at his legs, you see that his legs are like tree limbs into the icy ground. So that's what I painted to portray that feeling. And there's also a Cuban flag with the colors bled out. I donated this to the Celia Cruz Foundation.

What other artistic mediums would you like to explore? 
I'm looking to further develop my last video that I did. It’s an installation called "Brain Crash: The Head of God." In developing this, I've been picking out key symbols from the film and creating sculptures based on these images, so you can get a full experience on the space and depth between them

Very provocative title. 
Basically, it's describing what's happening in my brain in that delicate moment before it crashes from sensory overload. So, to me, the head of God is the most powerful symbol in that composition, so I attached it to the title. But there are images that relate to direct attachments to the brain. The image of God himself as another form, making an appearance as a triangle as He balances an eyeball on its uppermost peak.

How did you get into making t-shirts?
This good friend of mine, this lawyer, we got into this discussion and he was telling me about how a bottom line is good to have. He thinks I'm a great artist, so he said to me, "Why don't you take this to another level?" So I thought about it and I wondered: "What is the best way that I could do that and still keep my integrity?" Because you have to have integrity.

How do you plan on selling them? At your shows? On the street? Consignment?
Yeah, yeah, all of that. It's just going to be another part of what it is that I do. That's why I want to use my name. Brand my signature. I want to see how far I can take it while making fun of the whole thing, living in both realms.

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