abstract art, a systems view

Mali Morris Back to Front at Eagle Gallery

with 10 comments

Stepping into the upstairs gallery at Eagle and immediately seeing the luminous colours of the Mali Morris paintings at Back to Front  takes me back to a time when I was similarly surprised by the vibrancy of colours, on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou where the George Rouault  prints took my breath away.  It is strange how, whilst being present in the here and now, associations come flooding in, from a time that was like this one, and at the same time is very different, separated in time and space.

Time and space seem to be a theme in this exhibition, where earlier paintings are presented alongside newer ones, including some very recent ones, shown for the first time. Seeing paintings from a few years ago and very recent ones together foregrounds the pre-figuring of current concerns in earlier works and new paintings connecting back. Then there is that wonderful spatial back to front motion in many Mali Morris paintings, where previous layers of paint are excavated and brought up to the surface, not to mention the animating of this particular gallery space, for which some of the new paintings were specifically intended.

I was in Bournemouth recently with friends who took us to see the Rusell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, where one of the artefacts that caught my attention was an icon.

What struck me about it was that the hands and face were ‘behind’ the jewelled garments and halo that stood perhaps as much as half an inch off the surface, yet they read as forward. The ‘back’ was ‘front’  and it reminded me of the Morris paintings where what was back is now front. Two marvelous new ones are Seven/Mesh and Five/Mesh. In some of the earlier works the grid that structures the work is often hidden by overpainting, in these new paintings it is more prominent, yet it recedes behind the disks created by wiping away areas of paint to reveal underpainted colours.

Mali Morris, Seven/Mesh, 2102, Acrylic on Canvas, 45 x 60cm, copyright Mali Morris, image by Courtesy Eagle Gallery

In Seven/Mesh the loosely painted grid describes a curving and almost pulsating space whilst the luminous discs seem to occupy the area right up front, yet not equally so, the central red circle floats further back than the ones that butt up to the edge above and below.   And there is movement between the seven disks. I think I have positioned them in relation to each other only to find that they shift. In one viewing the blue, for example, seems in front of the orange but then the orange re-asserts itself pushing forward. Now, although I was sure that the red receded, I am now less sure, maybe it hovers in front of all the others after all, but just for a moment. I become aware of my own process of attention giving and how this very act brings one event momentarily to the fore whilst another recedes.

Another new painting Lying Lightly employs the characteristic disc motif as well as the wonderful brush stroke swirl that we see from time to time in Morris’s work. This time in closely matched tones around a theme of violet, with adjacent colours red and blue as well as complementary yellow.

Mali Morris, Lying Lightly, 2012, Acrylic on Canvas, 21 x 26 cm, copyright Mali Morris, image by courtesy Eagle Gallery

The double “S” that looks like it was a continuous brush stroke, seems almost ‘hemmed in’ by the frame, whereas in another of the 2012 paintings on view here Slant we get a more open swirl, or rather swirls, that look like they could extend beyond the frame, more like a ‘background’ than in Lying Lightly. And here, as in another entitled Landing Light 3, this central theme is complemented by four rectangular shaped colours, one in each corner producing a ‘negative’ cruciform shape in between them. Again, this creates a to-ing and fro-ing of back and front: when I pay attention to the cruciform shape the rectangles become frame, when I pay attention to the rectangles the cruciform shape recedes and becomes more like a swirling background. The corner rectangles themselves look at first sight like they are painted on top of the swirl (in Landing Light 3 it is a loosely painted grid) but on closer inspection I get the impression that these too are ‘excavations’ of previous layers rather than positively painted figures, though I am not entirely sure about this.

Mali Morris, Slant, 2012, Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 50 cm, copyright Mali Morris, image by courtesy Eagle Gallery

I think it is this ambiguity that I appreciate so much in Mali Morris paintings. What’s at back could just as well turn out to be up front, the edges might become central, an area that has become dense with rich colour may be cleared away to reveal a glowing light that becomes positive ‘motif’. What appears ‘positive’ may turn out to be ‘negative’ and vice versa. I really don’t mean to find in all this metaphors for life but I can’t help it. And even then, such metaphors are quite different to ‘illustrations’ or ‘similes’, being themselves far more ambiguous and tentative. After all, it is painting we are looking at here, and painting that is resolutely and magnificently abstract.

Back to Front continues at The Eagle Gallery, 159 Farringdon Road, London, until 13 October 2012.


10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Great post, per usual, your writing and eye are thoughtful and evocative.


    October 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm

  2. Check out I think you will be interested in her thoughts.

    Carla Saunders

    October 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm

  3. Interesting and perceptive read as always Andy – I get so much more from your descriptions of paintings and artists than I do from reading art magazines – thanks…


    October 14, 2012 at 5:51 am

  4. Wonderful post Andy and such good paintings.

    Terry Greene

    November 21, 2012 at 8:08 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: