Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Rebecca Morris at the Renaissance Society

The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago is a forward-thinking institution. As standard course of action, the “Ren” anticipates and puts forth art set to make big waves. It serves as an indicator of things to come in the world of art. While not every exhibition is spot-on, or is even organized with that goal, the Ren’s track record speaks for itself: Thomas Struth (1990) Jessica Stockholder (1991) Isa Genzken (1992) Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1994) Luc Tuymans (1995) Kara Walker (1997) Kerry James Marshall, Raymond Petition (1998), Pierre Huyghe, Martin Kippenberger, Thomas Hirschhorn (2000). Most recently on view was an exhibition of work by Rebecca Morris.


Rebecca Morris • Untitled • 2002 • Oil & spray paint on canvas • 67 x 65 inches

Abstract art, specifically painting, has become such an excepted idiom that it is a valid alternative to a landscape when decorating your home or office. In addition, or because of this, abstraction almost immediately leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Especially when seen in a gallery or museum. The general public and the in-the-know art-crowds alike have a distaste for it these days. While it is seen as especially suited for public spaces (any location that could use a bit of color in the form of non-threatening splashes and dabs) any serious consideration of abstraction is extremely frowned upon. Abstraction has given birth to the age-old, and never worn-out, impulse of “my child could do that.” An argument the aesthetes have yet to convincingly rebut. This is all the more difficult, when theory has chucked out Modernism and Greenberg & Rosenberg. On the one hand we are attacking abstraction, symbolized by the Abstract Expressionists, for our own postmodern reasons. On the other, we don’t want to be in the same category as the debased masses. So what are art people to do? Abstraction is at once arguably a much accepted option, especially in the halls of painting departments at art schools across the land. But it is also ignored, even despised by the reigning opinions and trends of today’s art world.

Painting and drawing is definately the medium right now, but more in the form of cartoonish drawing, childish narrative and figuration of some sort. The art market is booming, and a major part of it is being cool. Collectors want to be young and cool like the cool kids making the art and running the galleries. Cool kids want to be famous and rich in some sort of arty way and it is all becoming a vescious frenzy that will sping out of control. It’sthe ‘80s again. The art world wants to be just like Hollywood, and pop music. The art world has its own celbrity’s and “it” boys and “it” girls. And also “it” mediums, or styles, and right now, it’s about drawing shows with work best described as graffiti meets awkward summer days of the late 70s-early 80s with a touch of shock -value sexual confusion. And while the up-and-comer gallerists et al fight hand over fist to represent the next gawky kid in process of getting a BFA, that sort of painting & drawing’s moment is already just about over. It’s like the verse in the title track of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “It was 20 years ago today/Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play/they’ve been goin’ in and out of style/but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile…” Nothing dies or goes away, it just comes in and out of style. This goes for art much beyond ye olde painting & drawing. Now it seems that this metaphorical swinging pendulum every one is always talking about is moving faster and faster as the art world becomes more and more obsessed with being a part of pop culture.


Rebecca Morris • Frankenstein • 2001 • Oil and spray paint on canvas • 60 x 57 inches

But in all this fury of the return to painting, abstraction really hasn’t come into play. Abstraction is not cool. Certainly not abstraction with an “A,” or an “Expressionism” following it. Abstrqaction is cool if you are being funny about it. If you are being a snotty brat about it. And painting hasn’t really been “returned to” at all. The painting and drawing plastered ironically in galleries is ignorant, and clueless. It is completely unaware of its past and its roots. It’s what Jerry Salz is calling “termite art.” And that sort of stuff never goes very far. This is not to say everyone should return to Greenburg and think in some sort of abject high minded way about art, but if you are indeed working in a medium which goes back to the caves, you probably should try to have some idea where it has gone. It would also follow that you would want to know.

Of course we have Gerhard Richter doing it, but his is more of a nihilist painting parlor trick about flattening everything out along with photography and there by destroying all meaning of anything. There is also the ironic form of abstraction. In his discussion with Rebecca Morris, Hamza Walker touched on the key points of “Abstraction becoming a platform to critique painting...abstract painting becoming allegory, trope, to critique modernity.” This is the official justification of the strain of painting which stems from Richter and moves down through Luc Tuymans and Wilhelm Sasnal and Magnus von Plessen. That, alongside the more loosely rigorous likes of Martin Kippenberger, Peter Doig and Daniel Richter account for the accepted modes of painting. Even a relative new comer like Thomas Scheibitz, who seems more on the non representational kick, still has representation. It seems very few artists working in the once again acceptable realm of painting are doing abstraction. And doing it with total committment. The total commitment of the painting of yore; the painting of Pollock and deKooning, the last painting that can ever be painted of Ad Reinhardt, that is serious business. That sort of painting is digging up old corpses many would rather leave buried in museums. That painting is endgame painting, painting the task of mourning painting, painting like it’s the last night on earth painting. THAT is Abstraction. That is Abstract with an “A” and Painting with a “P.” It is, as Hamza Walker read aloud, “Abstraction as a gauntlet, as a challenge, a dare. Who has the courage to paint for paintings sake? A painting for pleasure’s sake? Paintings that expose it as reading or thinking in its own right?”

And this is where Rebecca Morris and her exhibition of recent work comes in.


installation view of exhibition at the Renaissance Society

It is not to center Morris at the heart of a heated debate, full of theory and fury. Or to place Morris as the figure head of a return to serious abstraction. But it is in viewing the work, and later contemplating and discussing it, that these issues arise. There is no set conclusion, or finality. Art is never meant as a definitive answer. Theory is opinion. Art criticism, at its best is discussion and progression towards ever changing goals. At its worse it is either dictated like the Ten Commandments in an impenetrable language, or is hopelessly lackluster and flaccid in it’s criteria-less reportage description. It is quite possible this review-turned-essay embodies all of these things.

So to head into Rebecca Morris’ work headlong with inane chatter that grows into something more substantial: The first thing I notice is the color, lot’s of browns & brick colors. This is a good observation, though, because in Morris’ “A Manifesto for Abstractionists & Friends of the Nonobjective,” she states, “BLACK AND BROWN- THAT IS THE SHIT OF THE FUTURE.” So I am at least picking up on something that is also important to her. It is a nice little declaration because while it champions those colors (they will be ‘the shit’) it also makes you think of shit, because those are shitty colors. Black and brown go together in a real way, not an ironic hipster way. They may not be beautiful like blue and red, or sarcastically beautiful, like neon green and purple, but they do work. And they work in a cubist, modernist way. Which is a way we haven’t seen color working in a while, so it is welcome.


Rebecca Morris • Untitled • 2003 • Oil & spray paint on canvas

Other motifs are grids, stripes, and patterns, but not infinite patterns, these patterns don’t extend beyond the picture plane. They are contained within it. They are not perfectly tessellated to extend on open-endedly.

Light, whispy tufts of spray paint and thick wrinkled blobs, puddles, make up the surfaces of Morris’ paintings. Areas are thinned down to a wash with turpentine. Shapes overlap literally as puddles, or thick pudding skins, are laid down and piled on one another.

These paintings have a lot of light in the application of neon and metallic spray paint. In Day-Glo they reflect 110%. The silver paint hits your eyes like chrome on a hot summer day.

The thick stretchers make these paintings objects, give them a solid presence. But this comes into play in the work itself as the elements are visually, as well physically, about space. They are about surface, hills, mountains and valleys. Topographic, in a sense. She creates the work on the floor before moving it vertically. This is partially to do with the fact the a lot of the paint is so thick it has to be on the floor; otherwise it would slide right off. But Morris is also interested in that subtle but drastic shift from moving the painting from the floor to the wall. It is a moment of surprise where the painting becomes completely new while remaining the same. It is perhaps the moment when a work ceases to be in progress, and becomes finished. I notice this a lot with paintings, and it is almost troubling. Thinking of how the painting was lyihng flat on it’s back while being worked on, but then but upright when it is “ready to hang.” It makes the studio an operating table or a disceting table. And this is something that goes back to Pollock, working on his barn floor. What would it mean for a painting to be shown as it was made, on the floor? We see this a little with Linda Benglis or Polly Apfelbaum. But those works are done too consciously of being about the floor. What if Morris carried on painting as usual, but then stopped on the floor? Clearly, putting them on stretchers, framing, contextualizing, them, is where Morris’ paintings are ultimately made to go, and to live. But this step in the process opens up questions. Working on the messy floor, and in a dingy studio as a whole, is an integral part of the process. And so is the moment where canves gets cut out of the space, and given it’s own territory and presence. Seperating a paiting from its natural habitat of the studio, putting it on display, putting it in the white cube zoo cage is at least an important step. Looking at Morris’ paintings make one aware of all this.


installation view of exhibition at the Renaissance Society

When in Germany she took notice of Der Blaue Reiter ("The Blue Rider," the German Expressionist group led by Wassily Kandinsky). She was particularly drawn to Franz Marc’s “triangulated space.” She has come to notice that her paintings are very concerned with space, so she has made them bigger and bigger. So they actually exist in space. Architecture also then comes into play. Another element is the thick stretcher frames. Even in the process of painting, from on the floor to the wall, these works engage space.

The paintings stop short of representation, they only hint at it. Or they feel like stopping short in exploration. Like reproductions of Abstract Expressionist paintings mechanically enlarged- all the details are lost, smoothed out. Most serious painters loath the misreading of a painting. The type of comment like, “that looks like a metallic tit with a dent in it.” And while Morris does not court such Rorschach-ing, she does accept it, and has moved away from titles in order to further free up a viewer’s interpretation. Back to the masses, and how they handle abstract art that isn’t decoration, viewers often tend to cling to a title. But this isn’t just the public, everyone is like this. If you feel like you don’t “get” a piece of art you feel stupid, especially if you are one of the initiated. So if a piece has a title like “Lavender Mist” you tend to think it is about that. And then it almost ceases to be abstract at all. That Pollock isn’t a bunch of nonrepresentational, meaningless drips, it is a painting of mist, and now I can like it because now I know what it means. This plays into what Walker points out in his essay on Morris when he is discussing painting’s relationship to other paintings, “In other words, paintings are read in and through reference to other paintings begging the question, once abstraction has acquired legibility is there such a thing as an abstract painting?“ The question of abstract painting having legibility is in relation to other paintings but also, I feel a legibiltiy in relation to a meaning or intreptation. If an abstract painting is only understood, or ‘read” as being related to another painting, than it is a reference, a sign. It is nolonger an abstraction. So can abstract painting exist then? The answer is bluntly put as “’Hells Yes.’” Especially since, and this is certainly the with case with Rebecca Morris, there is no one true answer, reading, interpretation or comparison to be made. One way this is achieved is her adoption of a coded numerical system to catalog the paintings. Essentially this titles the work even less than “untitled.” This further abstracts the painting as lauguage of any type, save that of painting, has been removed. There is the code, the numerical structure, but that is a hidden device for personal reference, and so it is not part of how the viewer would experience it. This also calls into question the whole notion of labelling art at all. Should these paintings have any tags at all for viewers? No date, no title, no medium. Don’t worry about it, just look at the painting. How often do people hang art they own in their homes with wall labels? They have all the documentation filed away, but it is not a part of the piece, so it is not hanging on the wall next to it.


installation view of exhibition at the Renaissance Society

In some ways, however, the work seems seem to fall short of its goal. If the goal is the endless protracted one of saving art, and being the next moment. That is a synthetic goal, created by the discussion and its tangents. Watching Morris talk about her work, I get the impression she it not so nearly concerned in a massive debate as she is in talking in the world around her and then going into her studio and painting.

A fault with these works would be that, at times, they feel too mired down in trying to be aware of art history but also avoiding it at the same time. Rather than going fully into a belief and faith in art with an “A” they maintain a tinge of irony and withdrawal. This makes them awkward and difficult, which is bad because they come off lacking a certain “umpf” of completion. But it is ultimately good, because they maintain a uniqueness in their apparent unfinished-ness. It is also quite possible, that once painting became self aware, it could never really go back to the way it was before. To paint as if the last 45 years had never taken place, and sadly, there are plenty of people doing that, would not only be foolhardy, but would render your work irrelevant and a novel idiosyncrasy at best. So Morris’ paintings try to find a sense of order in all that. In a desire to paint abstractly in a sincere way, but also come to terms with everything else. Sometimes She is successful, others not.

The works on view at the Ren stand alone as strong instances of painting. Added to this are contextual circumstances. These paintings are a challenge and almost an affront. In being unapologetically paintings, and abstract nonetheless, they offer an “umpf” of much greater magnitude than being a satisfying work of Ab-Ex-sim would. Perhaps it is an old point to make, and maybe a little inappropriate, but I’ll dust it off anyhow. And actually, it is really necessary to point out the fact that these are, on top of being abstract paintings, being made by a young woman. This adds one more twist. This work is so good is because it is being created by an artist working in what are supposedly dead tropes (large, painting, abstraction) but who is of a new generation. And on top of that, they work, they compete. These are not the paintings of old guard abstractionists thoroughly ensconced in theory, history and the academic elitism or have gone “in and out of style.” These paintings are young and alive and they declare their unashamed powerful existence to you.

-E. Wenzel

Of major assistance in the writing of this article were the catalogue essay by Hamza Walker, and the televised broadcast of his discussion with the artist, Rebecca Morris, on CANTV.

Visit the Ren website


Cynthia said...

This is a terrific article. The stuff about painting on the floor then objectifying it with stretchers raising it to the wall of the white cube "zoo" is striking.

One of the best shows up here in the Chicago burbs this past year was at the SFAC, called something like "Completely Abstract" (can't remember the exact title -- nothing on their web site, unfortunately). Many of the pieces looked very unexpected and fresh.

Anonymous said...

How is it that a list of names that many who know plenty about art have never heard of is supposed to amount to a track record for the "Ren" that "speaks for itself" yet The Blue Rider evidently doesn't speak for itself as a parenthetical description of it was thought necessary by the writer?

Except for a few tell-tale signs like that, it would be hard to believe the writer is a mere 24 years old. It isn't just the command of art jibberish but also masterful dropping of names and such that is unusual in someone so young. The key to art criticism is having the reader understand much less than the writer and this writer has a fine appreciation of that, except again a beginner's error is made in statements such as "Theory is opinion". Evolution is a theory but try getting away with taking the stand that is is therefore opinion as well. Art theory is never presented as mere opinion either. If it were there would be no way to act as if knowing it amounts to a superior understanding of art.

I don't know on what basis we should think he is an extraordinary artist but I've seen enough to indicate an extraordinary writer -- for age 24 at least.

Anonymous said...

Is her manifesto anywhere online? How can I obtain a copy of it? Thanks!

John Swayne said...

I can't at all agree that this article is passable. It is written by a 24 y/o who still doesn't know how to write a cohesive, error free article. I think that just about justifies ignoring it. The one thing that I want to mention: the analysis of the "art world" is horrendous. Art is in the making, not in the production. Also, writing about art is like rendering a piece of paper: it's a waste of your time. Create rather than recreating.

The Artist Extraordinaire said...

So what does that make commenting on writing about art?