An Introduction to Paul Morrison's "Impossible Paintings"
Within Paul Morrison's paintings, everything is comfortably recognizable, accessible, and charming at the level of interpretation, they chart perfectly familiar territory, as if the long
tradition of landscape painting has logically arrived at such paintings as these. At the same time, at the level of interpretation, Morrison's paintings are strangely unyielding, and, under scrutiny, they grow stranger; they chart territory that does not fit comfortably within the landscape genre. Consequently, the most fascinating attribute of his paintings is the instability of the visual information they contain, and their ability to engage that part of the mind to which one retreats when confronted with self-referential contradiction. Fortunately, this part of the mind enjoys complexity: it is where experimental psychologists toy with such conundrums as paradoxes, optical illusions, and impossible objects." and where they construct models of perception. It is also where logicians and theoretical mathematicians ponder the value of counterintuitive axiomatic sets and where we all tend to go when concentrated attempts to stabilize interpretation fail. It the only place where one might conclude that that-which-is is not.
Since the mid-1990s Paul Morrison has been producing paintings that must be categorized as landscapes. Within their appealing black-and-white compositions, identifiable trees and plants appear in outdoor settings. The receding space one finds in nature is established, as in all landscapes, by the relative sizes of forms within space. Whatever trees or flowers are closest to the viewer in the foregrounds, are large, while those farther away grow progressively smaller as they approach the horizon. Such other pictorial elements is Morrison indudes-a sun or moon, fences, clouds, or hills-help delineate the deep space that characterizes natural vistas.
At the same time, Morrison's means of depicting figurative elements seems calculated less to achieve the illusion of naturalistic landscape than to test the lower limits of the quantity of visual formation required to represent a landscape, and the outer limits of pictorial modes that can hold together as cohesive compositions. His method is to appropriate images of disparate styles; among his sources are Renaissance prints, early botanists’ paintings, photographs, and popular cartoons. He preserves the integrity of these disparate styles, and the identity of the depicted objects, even as he reduces each element through digital processing. Such color as exists in the original image is reduced to black, while any internal modeling is reduced to silhouette or enlarged to the brink of abstraction. In turn, the figurative elements tend to be arranged sparingly in the manner of pastiche. Each thistle, fem, or stump exists as a discrete, shadowless, two-dimensional unit floating in unmodulated space.
Morrison eschews conventions of rendering that in traditional landscapes, help create the illusion of depth and unified space. Objects in the backgrounds of his paintings are no less crisp and bright than those in the foregrounds. Atmospheric elements, such as clouds and fog, are reduced to bold, sharp-edged abstract patterns. Perception is further complicated by the fact that, within a single work negative space sometimes may be rendered white and at other times black. The same holds true for objects. The emphasis on the "sameness" of pictorial elements is reinforced by the character of the painted surface, which the artist goes to great lengths to make absolutely level. In Morrison's painting, black paint does not rest atop white, nor white atop black the two coexist in equilibrium, thus diminishing the conventional figure-ground relationship.
This equilibrium of the painted surface reinforces the equilibrium that Morrison achieves at the overall level of Gestalt. While all painted images contain some level of abstraction and most painted abstractions are, in some way, representational-Morrison balances the two domains. To understand the conundrum fully one must keep in mind that Morrison's figurative elements are themselves abstractions, in the way symbols, numbers, and letters are abstractions. These elements may stand for physical things in the world-ferns, flowers, or clouds-but they represent representations. In their reduced states, they evoke two forms of abstraction: the kind associated with nondescriptive shapes, and the figurative kind that symbolizes ideas.
Morrison's mastery at balancing widely disparate modes of visual discourse accounts for the cool temperature of his paintings, which seem to withhold exactly as much as they give. Simple forms, such as those Morrison depicts, usually speak with clarity. Morrison's, though, are silent. One sees idyllic pastoral settings through the “window onto nature”, but the body does not enter. The back and forth between white and black, figure and ground, abstraction and representation-and between one kind of abstraction and another-confuses the eye and sets the mind spinning: Should the work be embraced with the senses or read like a sentence? At the level of Gestalt these immobile paintings fluctuate; they hold together a cohesive compositions even as they break apart into discrete units of information. At the level of interpretation, they are and are not landscapes.
Our attempt to stabilize interpretation instinctively leads to a process of comparative compartmentalizing. Roy Lichtenstein's black-and-white Golf Ball (1962) is close, but the parts too easily concede to the whole. The more abstract “mirror" and "reflections" paintings also relate but the clever Pop Art diminution of abstract painting supersedes alternative interpretations. Lichtenstein plays the nature-versus-unnatural card in his landscapes, and many of his cartoon-style compositions play loose with space, particularly the Interiors Series of be 1990s. His works, however, are fundamentally stable at the level of perceptual interpretation, and the strain of cheeky irony that runs through there is nowhere to be found in Morrison's.
Leaving Lichtenstein behind the mind drifts to Ellsworth Kelly's Seine (1951), with its black-and-white systematized depiction of water, or to Kelly's many abstract forms derived from existing shapes found in the environment. There is kinship here, but for Morrison, nature is not the stepping stone to contingency-based abstractions. if any category of art fits, it is the one we invented to contain Ed Ruscha's conceptual paintings that are both landscapes and figurative abstractions. Ruscha, however, tricks the mind, but not the senses. The concerns of the appropriationists of the 1980s, artists to work with silhouettes, and contemporary YBAS are too social, and none raises perceptual questions.
Ultimately, one retreats to that part of the mind where inherently unstable images and other forms of paradox reside. This place is where Wilhelm Wundt must have gone when, in the late nineteenth century, he founded the experimental science of psychology, and where he pondered such optical illusions as the one he created, in which lines drawn straight appear to curve. This part of the mind was described in the early twentieth century as a kind of “electromagnetic dynamic field" by some Berlin school psychologists. These psychologists helped formulate the modern concept of Gestalt as a "wholeness" formed in the mind as a result of stimulus pattern; the Gestalt "whole" is more than the sum of its parts, and has properties the parts do not have: A melody is different from a note; a curved line seen as part of a cartoon face is a smile.
The Berlin school psychologists flatly rejected Goethe's late eighteenth-century concept of Gestalt. Morrison's attitude toward Goethe isn't as clear. Goethe postulated that Gestalts are primal forms or ideas out of which nature builds variations; these “Ur-Gestalten" are forms of pure thought behind the flux of being. Goethe arrived at his concept of Ur-Gestalten through deduction offering up the example of the primal plant or "Urplanze," which he described as both real and nonmaterial, and as the generative blueprint behind the variety and apparent disorder of material plant life.
Unlike Goethe, the Berlin school psychologists did not retreat to the Platonic realm in the effort to compartmentalize perplexing phenomena. Like Wundt, they brought scientific methods to the study of perception. With their theory of Gestalt and other propositions, they formed a compartment in the mind where unsolvable conundrums are allowed to reify as self-referential contradictions, and as truths, which may be akin to John Keats's concept of "negative capability." Fascinating items are stored in the compartment, along with "Wundt's illusion”. The famous "Rubin vase" created by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin, around 1915, perfectly equalizes the figure-ground relationship of forms that share edges. This black-and-white image presents the viewer with a mental choice of one of two interpretations, each of which is valid: The white shape in the center is a vase, or the surrounding black forms are facing profiles of faces. These interpretations fluctuate: both cannot be perceived at one time. Sometimes this study is presented with the vase black and the faces white: this variation works equally well. Other items stored in the compartment cleverly illustrate Gestalt cohesion. The "Kanizsa triangle" produces a bright, solid, white triangle formed in negative space by cuts in black circles and breaks in black lines. Other items are simply befuddling. The optical illusions known as the “Penrose triangle” and the "blivet" or “Devil's tuning fork” are both perfectly immobile, diagrammatic drawings of three-dimensional objects that fluctuate madly, perpetually switching from one configuration to another. For good reason, these two items are classified as "impossible objects."
The most troubling items in the compartment are those whose perplexities cannot possibly be blamed on the wiring of the eye, since they exist in the abstract domain of symbolic logic. These are the axiomatic set theory paradoxes formulated (or discovered) by logicians, the most famous of which was postulated by Bertrand Russell, in 1901. “Russell's paradox" establishes that the set of all sets, which must be a member of itself, cannot be a member of itself. The principle at work in Russells logical contradiction is expressed in a semantic paradox originating in ancient Greece: A Cretan says all Cretans are liars. Is what he says true or false?
Since the first axiomatic set theories came to light in the late nineteenth century, with the revelations of Georg Cantor and others, these confounding self-referential paradoxes have outraged theologians, disturbed philosophers, and shaken the ground beneath the feet of theoretical mathematicians. Many logicians and theoretical mathematicians, including Russell, have since found routes around their circular antinomies-a must in order for logicians and theoretical mathematicians to carry on with business-but have done so only by creating new categories to contain them. Whether a new category needs to be set up for Paul Morrison's “circular” landscapes is difficult to say. His paintings are not paradoxes in the classical sense, but they fit in this category as well as any other, and they fit within it better, perhaps, than any other paintings ever have. (M.C.Escher merely illustrates paradoxes: his works are toys.)
Morrison's paintings present us with the world, but leave us standing on shaky ground: they dip in and out of discursive categories easily as impossible objects change shape. In that disk the sun or is it the moon? Are the figural elements abstract or do images possess material weight? Is the nature-of-nature or the nature-of-perception the subject of these works? Does the set of all landscapes contain Morrison's paintings, or do Morrison's paintings contain the set of all landscapes? Each interpretation fades in and out of view. We finally conclude that Morrison has created the paradox of “impossible printings”, and we stand with Keats as "being in uncertainties”, without the need to reach for fact or reason or to create a new compartment. We come to relish the cool equilibrium that throws us off balance, and get on with the business of enjoying the complexity of Paul Morrison's art.