Mali Morris at Mostyn Gallery
When you plan your trip to see Mali Morris: Works on Canvas and Paper at Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, even though it continues until 24 June 2012, and even though Mostyn Gallery is open 7 days a week, go sooner rather than later, because when you’ve been the once, you will probably want to visit a second or third time.
What is it about these works that rewards prolonged viewing and that later, when enjoying the memory of them, seems to draw me back for a repetition? And, on repeat viewing, I realise the impossibility of repetition: it is something different I am noticing in the work this time around.
If abstract painting, to quote Matthew Collings on Mali Morris, is about “constantly coming up with visual metaphors for experience”, and the artist’s job is to produce this metaphor-world “in the form of visual pleasure, or beauty”, that’s a great metaphor for what Mali Morris does. And visual pleasure begins even as I peer though the window, waiting for the gallery to open
and even more so when I get inside and confront, or am confronted by the large painting North & South, on loan from The Royal Academy.
Love at first sight (!) is my response to the startling beauty that seems to be “out there”, or the visual pleasure, that seems to be “in here”. Beauty seems connected to desire, and the goal of desire, according to Slavoj Zizek “is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire”. Seeing it, I want to see it some more, and looking more closely, what started out like an epiphany becomes more like a slow reveal. The brightness of the coloured discs immediately grabs my attention from a distance, and moving nearer, I get interested in their very specific characters, each one different as a result not only of the quality of the particular chosen colour but because of the way it is arrived at. And are they contained within shaped ‘fields’ or do they sit on top of flat planes? Or maybe they inhabit different spaces, some receding further back than others, or then again, perhaps they hover above twisting and bending spaces. Seeing the painting from a different angle the space certainly appears to bend, but not in an “op art” way, it is slower and gentler than that. The colour creates space, and doesn’t perceiving this colour at least hint at a suspension of the natural cycle of desire, a kind of “bliss” according to Roland Barthes?
I missed the artist’s talk at the exhibition opening, the day before my visit, but a member of the gallery staff was kind enough to relate some of what had been said, recalling that partly it had been about the influence of other painters both modern and pre-modern, and remembering a comment about the relationship of the size of the works to the body, not just the artist’s hand or wrist but indeed the whole arm, and in the larger works the whole body.
Looking at the paintings, whilst the circular forms, even in the works that seem to hold just one such form, never become ‘faces’ or ‘heads’, they do engage me in a kind of conversation and I wonder if that’s what the first painting in this show brings to mind, or rather to heart, in its title: Reply.
I can imagine the two circles replying, or being a reply to one another, or the two circles in conversation with the blue-ish over-painted “ground”. Or is the painting itself a reply to previous paintings, (working as Morris does in series tends to create an ongoing conversation of art works)? I can also imagine the whole exhibition as a reply to a previous one, almost as if this first painting, on a wall of its own, announces that the show is the artists reply, situated within a previously established dialogue. And doesn’t an artist also enter into a kind of debate with the painting itself, so that the work could even be a reply to the artist as if it had a life of its own? It could equally be that the artist is engaging me in a discussion, replying to my statement or question about art or about life. The painting greets me, draws me into a conversation, but one that has already commenced some time ago, a bit like when I meet up with my twin brother and we just “carry on from where we left off” even though we haven’t seen each other for months. Even so, it is a conversation beyond or before language, where again it is colour that seems to temporarily suspend the necessity of language and thought-as-language (internal dialogue).
There are 18 paintings on canvas in the downstairs gallery, mostly small in size, yet each one ‘big’ enough to get a good ‘conversation’ going between painting and viewer. The way they are arranged also means they get ‘conversations’ going between themselves.
In the upstairs gallery there are 18, mostly smaller, paintings on paper including the very recent series the Mostyn Suites, which remind me of jewels, approaching tiny at 10 x 15 cm, in amazingly luminous colour (my photos don’t do them justice have a look at the picture on the Mostyn web site).
In David Batchelor‘s book Chromophobia he observes that in literature colour often gets “caught in the spell of gems and precious stones” and that “gems often stand in for colour-in-general. They represent the point at which colour becomes independent and assertive…” Whether in Aldous Huxley’s visions of Heaven: “always a place of gems” or Dorothy’s Oz, “colour – intense, heightened, pure, unqualified offer(s) a glimpse of the ‘Other World’, a world beyond Nature and the Law”. In Mali Morris’s little works on paper, gem-like in their luminosity, colour seems to become independent and brilliantly assertive. The modernist abstract tradition where the words “big” and “abstract” belong together has clear resonance with Morris’s work, yet in these little paintings she almost turns the theory of colour-field abstraction on its head.
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