Monday, 30 August 2010


Those who saw Alex Gene Morrison’s last solo show in London, 2006’s ‘Vile Lure’, may be surprised by his new body of work. Four years ago there were paintings and videos of gloopily comical, pastel-coloured characters who seemed to have zoomed in from some unspecified sub-culture: we were in an alternate universe with equal measures of seduction and repulsion. In contrast, Morrison’s new show is of paintings only and is dark, serious, restrained and apparently abstract.

But not so fast. A closer look at the biggest canvases in ‘Dark Matter’ reveals that these may not be so abstract after all. ‘Sentinel’ suggests a door, a tomb or some Cyclopic presence. ‘Mass’ could be a dark planet, a black hole, a ball of flies or an opening into the void: an earlier version even started as an ironically black Smiley face. ‘Static’ could be a another dark opening, but also a huge close-up of a medal with ribbon, a computer screen or even two green faces in profile shouting each other down.

Nor is Morrison all that restrained. Far from disguising the artist’s hand in the flat style of much minimalism, there is a hand-drawn wobble to the shapes and plenty of painterly effect. The black centre of ‘Mass’ has a swarming, crawling texture. The reading of ‘Static’ as a screen is supported by the horizontal static-like striations of paint. ‘Sentinel’ contrasts areas of gloss and matt paint. Several smaller paintings make playful use of dark on dark colouration so that shapes are evident from some angles only.

These apparent abstracts, then, all from the last few months, are openings – literally, in those which depict portals, doors and screens – but also metaphorically. Openings into what?

First, they are openings to other places. The visual language echoes the worlds of science fiction and computer games and the urban landscape – all consistent with Morrison’s background and previous interests. Perhaps his characters may yet be ready to occupy these spaces. The paintings in ‘Dark Matter’ also suggest the more abstract world of artists such as Malevich, Rothko and Reinhardt to which they clearly refer.

Those three are spiritual painters, which may be another clue. Morrison’s father died shortly before he embarked on these paintings. That, not surprisingly, affected him profoundly and explains why tombs and coffins can be seen in the paintings, too. It is also consistent with the dark tonality and serious atmosphere of the work, and suggests that those openings may be into the possibility of an afterlife. The solar and planetary elements and the presence of hovering – or possibly rising – forms fits in with that.

The portals may also lead us into different times. The science fiction reference recurs if we see the paintings as depicting a form of time travel. References from the past – eighties technology, primitive video games, classic abstraction – are thrown forward into an imagined future. A future in which – as is the way – it seems the looks of former times have come around back into fashion. It’s a sort of primitive retro-futurism.

The emotional and scientific implications of ‘Dark Matter’ are, then, present throughout. The stage is set for these apparently abstract paintings to imply a surprising amount of narrative content – historical, personal, spiritual, transformational, and speculative. It’s not so much that Morrison has discarded his previous content, as that he’s testing how far he can move away from its figurative characteristics and still refer to it. I get the sense that this game works both ways: some forms start from the narrative, others emerge for themselves and Morrison then has to puzzle out whether and how they fit in. That keeps the process open and fresh.

Abstraction often arrives through a paring-back of references to the world in favour of concentrating on the work of art as an independent object in itself. In one way Morrison has started from that point by concentrating on geometric forms, but then added back the links to the world. Yet one could at the same time say that the result is rather closely related to Rothko’s intentions, for he saw himself not as an abstractionist but as a painter of human emotions.

Morrison’s latest work, then, gives us subtly lush paintings which pilfer the history of abstraction, but also provide openings into other times and places. They are abstracts activated by the to and fro of their stories.

No comments: