Sign and Colour: The Language of Paul Morrison's Landscapes
Paul Morrison paints exclusively in black and white. That already strikes one as too definitive a statement. It implies that a reduction has taken place and that a potentially infinite vocabulary has been deliberately restricted, as with scientific experiments where all variables save one are held constant. It is true that Morrison's paintings and wall drawings are all made with black paint on a white ground, and his films, while using short excerpts from commercial films whose originals are invariably in colour, are also finally rendered into black and white. Even so it is hard to see the work as monochromatic. What Morrison's use of the single (non-) colour achieves is an unfixing of his imagery from any particular reading or interpretation. We all know that a dandelion's leaves are green, that its flower heads are a golden yellow, and that the seeds that form the clock are a dirty white. The fact that they all invariably appear as black in Morrison's paintings does not alter this reality, nor does it diminish our appreciation of the fact. It does, though, prevent us from assuming anything about what black stands for. The dandelions and other flowers that he paints exist in a space whose visual limits are most often set through the simple act of draw ing a horizon line somewhere across the middle of the wall or canvas. It would be reasonable to assume that the ground thus brought into existence through this standard graphic technique is as likely as not to be covered in grass. So the white wall is as green as the black of the leaf shapes. Until, that is, the eye rises above the horizon line, whereupon it must change to the blue of the sky, or, if there happens to be total cloud cover, white or grey. Black is green and white is green. White is blue and black is yellow. Black is white and white is white. In the face of such mutability, verisimilitude - this is a picture, albeit stylised, of some perfectly straightforward scene in nature - is only one option for the viewer. We shouldn't think of black and white as a limitation. We shouldn't think that there is only so far one can go using just one paint colour, and that some time in the near or distant future, Morrison will recognise this fact and begin to introduce proper colour into his work. The proper colour is already there. Putting it in, in a more literal sense, would simply reduce the multi valence and potential that is inherent in the black paint. In his decision to restrict himself to black, there is, moreover, the foundation of a dialogue between Morrison and other figures in recent painting - Malevich's black and white, Mondrian's black and white, Rauschenberg's black and white. Stella's black and white, Reinhardt's black, Ryman's white. Then perhaps, there are the greys, too: On Kawara, Roman Opalka, Gerhard Richter, and so on, and so on. In his Remarks on Colour, Wittgenstein discusses the curious qualities of transparency and opacity displayed by colours. White is always opaque, it always resists the eye and obscures as much as it delineates. This is what he had to say about greyness:
I saw in a photograph a boy with slicked back blond hair and a dirty light-coloured jacket, and a man with dark hair, standing in front of a machine which was made in part of castings paint ed black, and in part of finished, smooth axles, gears, etc., and next to it a grating made of light galvanised wire. The finished iron parts were iron coloured, the boy's hair was blond, the castings black, the grating zinc-coloured, despite the fact that every thing was depicted simply in lighter and darker shades of the photographic paper.
On the basis of his observations, Wittgenstein wonders just what is being seen. Does he merely infer that the boy's hair must be such and such a colour, or does he really see it that way? Wittgenstein's answer is that both are true. On the one hand, the boy really does have blond hair, and on the other his hair just appears as a lighter or darker shade of grey. Like wise with Morrison's paintings, the black and whites are both themselves and all the other colours we can see them as. And, as with Wittgenstein, for whom thinking about colour was a means to addressing the way in which the structure of thought can account for experience, Morrison's paintings are, in his own words, 'cognitive landscapes'. An apple tree. Much fruit remains on the branches, but many apples have already fallen to the ground around the base of the tree. Such an image, wherever we encounter it, cannot escape its heavyweight connotations. Read it innocently and it is the bounty of nature, though that ingenuousness cannot last for long. Why for instance, are the fruit fallen and not gathered? It is not hard to view it as the tree at the centre of the Garden of Eden, and therefore to take it as signifying original sin. It could, equally, be the tree under which Isaac Newton sat, whose dropping fruit inspired the formulation of his theory of gravity, Religion and science, belief and knowledge all at once. When we see it in Morrison's paintings - in Panorama, Premonition, and Canopy, for example, or in Feld - it is a very simply drawn tree, less an observed rendering of an example of the species Pyrusmalus, than a composite of signs. Onto and around a basic tree shape, which, if we are honest with ourselves, looks more like an oak than anything else, Morrison has added a number of apples to make, not an apple tree, but an apple-tree. Because of its sign-like qualities it is as much a linguistic as a visual construct, and so, in the child-like simplicity of its form, it stands as another kind of origin. It is a gateway into language itself: as every English speaking infant learns from their first alphabet book, a is for apple. Language allows us to think, to operate in what Deleuze and Guattari called the space between territory and earth, the space within which we attempt to match what we are against what we might have been and what we are destined to become. What we call landscape describes that space. It goes without saying that Morrison paints landscapes. Just look. There are the flowers, trees, and ferns, there are the meadows and orchards, there are the wooden parkland fences and the ploughed fields, there are the horizon, the clouds, coverings of snow, drops of dew, spiders' webs, ... And, which is just as important when we are considering land scape as distinct from mere views of the world, the scenes depicted are not pictures of any particular place, nor are they of any one moment or time. Vale, for example, depicts a scene largely framed by the vertical post and horizontal railing of a wooden fence. A fir tree in the left foreground carries a layer of snow on its branches, as does the top of the fence railing. Two deciduous trees in the background show their pattern of leafless branches silhouetted against the sky But the ground between those trees and the fence is covered with bold flowers in full bloom. It is winter, and it is summer. Within a painting, of course, such incongruence remains entirely possible since the space it opens up to us is one of reason rather than one of pure logic. The elements Morrison uses in the building up of his paintings are recognisable. They are not necessarily identifiable in the sense of us always being able to attach a Latin name to them, but they are certainly recognisable in their graphic simplicity. A flower is usually a generic flower form with distinct and clearly defined petals, a tree - sometimes of a specific species, at other times not - tends to acknowledge common associations. The snow laden branches in Vale, for example, conform to the wide spread view within the public imagination of the conifer - pretty much any conifer - as the Christmas tree'. None of these forms are Morrison's inventions, all being derived from images found in and appropriated from other places. He may well take a scientifically accurate illustration from a plate in a botanical textbook, or excise the background detail from a Renaissance painting, but he is just as likely to have adapted an illustration to a children's story, a magazine article, or lifted a portion of some other item of printed matter such as a CD or LP cover. The details of where Morrison finds his imagery are not in themselves important. That's his business rather than ours. What is clear, nonetheless, is that they are being discovered by him within an environment that is familiar to us all. Books of all sorts - children's, fiction, scientific, reference, films, magazines, videos, paintings, music, the internet, all of these are part of our own milieu. Being accustomed to these things, we have no trouble in identifying the various illustrative styles in which the elements in Morrison's paintings are drawn, and thus in attributing to them a likely provenance. The one form that appears time and again, and which is unmistakable, is the dandelion. Its serrated leaves, its clocks, its flimsy tubular stalks that can so easily be bent or snapped, and its dense flower head are all easily identifiable. The dandelion is the quintessential weed, which is to say, it is the flower that is for ever appearing in the wrong place. A few years ago one British TV gardening expert recounted how he had dug up a dandelion root, nailed it to the outside of his garage door, left it to the mercies of the weather for two years and then replanted it, whereupon it began to grow again immediately. Annoying without being a real pest, it is ineradicable. You can hide its presence in a lawn with regular mowing - that is to say, care and attention will make it seem as if it is being kept at bay - but as the standard pocket book on British wildflowers says, it is common in all grassy and waste places. Its appearance always and inevitably signals one of two things. In the country, that the place is one outside areas of cultivation. In towns, cities and built up areas, pushing up through cracks in the paving and tarmac, it betrays the fact that the site has begun to decay somewhat. Either way, what confronts us is the insistent reality of a nature over which we ultimately have no jurisdiction. The veneer of cultivation that we lay over the world is never more than paper-thin. Dandelions figure in our industrial and urban margins alongside such plants as Rosebay Willowherb and Buddleia as so many signs that our environment is flawed and dilapidated. Willowherb, for example, colonises the lesser-used and abandoned areas of the increasingly decrepit railway system, while Buddleia grows from every crevice in the crumbling concrete and loose pointing of all the towns and cities of the country. Painted larger than human height onto the wall of a gallery, the dandelion provides a memento mori every bit as uncompromising as the anamorphic skull that runs across the foreground of Holbein's The Ambassadors. In its role as a weed, a displaced flower, it exemplifies that process of 'estrangement' (dépaysement) through which, according to Jean-François Lyotard, landscape comes into being. Lyotard writes that a landscape is made when a mind is transported from one sensible matter to an other. Estrangement occurs because the mind retains the means of organisation appropriate to its original environment. When we hear the term landscape we think always, and immediately, of the countryside as experienced by a city dweller But it could as easily, by this definition, be the other way round. Or, as Lyotard suggests, something such as the earth seen from the moon by a terrestrial. In Morrison's hands, too, the landscape is not so much something out there to be con templated, as a meditation on the inner workings of a contemporary experience of the world which is overwhelmingly shaped by urban surroundings. If one aspect of landscape is some notion of utopia, Morrison presses upon us that the utopian nowhere towards which we orient ourselves in our individual and collective imaginations is also always a now here, The word 'nowhere' appears in Morrison's publication, Cognitive Landscape, next to a reproduction of the painting, Protoplasm. Two broad vertical bands of eddying black and white stripes indicate fence posts. The one to the right is hard up against the edge of the painting, while the background scene extends just a little way beyond the outer edge of the left-hand band, Between these two fence posts, reversed out of a black sky, is a fairy tale fruit tree. On the ground in front of it is an uprooted plant, its root ball freed of earth and teased out. A related painting, Eddish, has a single vertical band to the left. To the right of this, once again reversed out of a black sky, is a leafless tree rendered in sufficient detail to cause me embarrassment at my inability to name its species. A large dandelion fills the foreground. Eddish is parkland, or an enclosed area of cattle pasture. It is not so very far, either linguistically or semantically, from Eden. The caption Morrison gives its reproduction in the same catalogue is Walden Pond. It is an other idyllic site, though the thought of Thoreau's home in the Massachusetts woods is now often overlain by the memory of behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner's Walden Two, a novel exploring an experimental social utopia overseen by a character whose private living arrangements bordered on chaos: / send an email asking if there is a title for this exhibition, a single large wall painting of a dense foreground tangle of dandelions through which three varieties of conifer can be seen in the middle distance. The one word reply, Saxifraga, comes back. There is no reason to expect any gloss on this. Just as he deems it unnecessary to explain the sourcing of his imagery. Morrison declines to expand on the often technically precise words he chooses as titles. In any case, the environment of which his landscapes speak, our own environment, contains many accessible paths for analysis with out him having to steer us. Saxifrages are so called because of their tenacious ability to take root in rock clefts. As their name implies they are, to all appearances, stone breakers. After reaching down a book and flicking through it I can say with some authority that there are many species in the saxifrage family, including Starry, Arctic, Rue-leaved, Yellow, Marsh, Meadow, Highland, Drooping, Mossy, Tufted, Irish, Purple, Livelong, Hawkweed, Pyrenean, and Kidney saxifrage. couple of mouse clicks give me even more material that it seems gratuitous to introduce here. I can use the net, too, to ascertain that 'fac. 33', the caption Morrison appends to Vale is the catalogue number for New Order's Ceremony, a song written by lan Curtis for Joy Division, but not recorded until after his suicide and the subsequent name change of the band. We should not be tempted to conclude that this apparent command over facts and information is unequal to, say, the knowledge of the world instilled into the brutalised pair in Courbet's Stone Breakers, or the intense acquaintance with wildlife of Thoreau, who 'frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch.' What is much more significant is to comprehend that the paths of exploration into and through these landscapes are ones that lead us deeper into the complex character of what is here and what is now.