Richard Allen Morris, Morris Code, works from 1957-2007by Kara L. Rooney
Peter Blum Gallery, March 21 – May 9, 2009
John Baldessari may have canonized the phrase, “I will not make any more boring art,” but it is his self-taught friend and contemporary, Richard Allen Morris, who lives out the infamous dictum. Chameleon-esque, vibrant, sometimes political, and typically abstract, Morris’s oeuvre resides within the intermediary space between legend and obscurity, art history and contemporary culture. Spanning six decades (1958-2007), Morris Code reads something like a “greatest hits”—not of one artist in particular, but of a broad spectrum of art historical styles, moods and revelations cast through a lens of creative “reality testing.”
The exhibition provides many points of entry but few clues to thematic links (save for exuberant eccentricity), so let’s begin with the guns. Executed between 1961 and 1992, the “Guns” series occupies a gallery of its own off the main exhibition space. This is important, for it is the separation of these sculptural reliefs from the other works that lends them an air of individual authenticity and power. While the majority of Morris’s work engages in the simple pleasure of artistic experimentation, the guns function as totemic symbols for a more politically active viewpoint. Assembled out of studio detritus, yard-sale treasures, children’s toys, and reused pieces of canvas, the guns, ranging in size from a small caliber rifle to an Uzi, act as clever commentaries for a politically literate but apathetic culture. For example, For Mexico (1992), an intricately assembled hodgepodge of indigenous rugs, tinfoil, and painted wood (also one of the largest guns in the series), ominously portends the current drug-related murders ravaging the country, while others, such as the floral covered Pop-pastiche, Book ‘em Dano (1992), play on the dialectically explosive relationship between weapons, safety, and entertainment. Packed into one room, these quirky assemblages fire back and forth at each other and at the viewer, marking the gallery space as a loaded playpen for artistic and political action.
On a lighter note, Morris’s paintings suggest the joie-de-vivre of someone in love; the performance of painting, grounded in the theater of brushstroke and color, is the artist’s muse. As a painter Morris has little interest in the commodified object but, rather, the moment of inspiration attained through the act of artistic execution. In his miniature canvas realms, viscous layers of fuchsia and warm pastel hues resemble slabs of caked icing while at other times that same material is squeezed directly out of the tube in vertically striped arrangements—an art historical shout-out to Frank Stella’s banded motifs. In contrast to such Ab-Ex experiments, Morris also creates figurative portraits—cartoonish profiles with olfactory appendages mired somewhere between Pop Art and comic illustration. Sorted and arranged in textural clusters, Morris’s canvases range from intimate to poster-size and adopt a variety of shapes: triangle, circle, octagon, and rectangle, all proving fair game for the artist’s formal vocabulary. But if pattern and repetition play an undeniable role in Morris’s opus, it is difficult if not impossible to ascertain exactly what that role is. One possibility, however, presents itself in the title of the show.
In the postmodern era, binary codes constitute our computational make-up, transmit our messages and define our daily interactions; 1,0,1,0,1,0 has become the substructure upon which everything is built. The beauty of Morris Code, however, is that it breaks down such formulaic evocations of meaning, promoting and sanctifying the chaotic. In this sense the artist’s ‘code’ is at odds with the exhibition title’s implied reference, the telegraphic system developed by Samuel Morse in the 1840s. Dots and dashes are no more helpful for deciphering Morris’s brand of painterly anarchy than is the common dictionary. The lexical value of the work resides in its rhythmic ambiguity—its refusal to be pinned down or defined by one era or style.
In one of the final collage works in the exhibition, Charlie Parker as a Little Boy (1958), a winged figure playing saxophone soars above a nocturnal background of birds, stars, and moon. Hovering in flight, the figure calmly regards the frame between his world and the landscape below—a visual allegory for the artist’s own experience with the art world at large. As the 76-year-old Morris peers in from his outsider status, I wonder what he sees. Does he observe the world that almost overlooked him with amused ambivalence or can one detect a tinge of sarcastic irony? If asked to wager a guess, I’d say it must be a little bit of both.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.