Rambler: the Landscape paintings of Paul Morrison
English culture seems particularly predisposed to creating visual and literary fictions portraying the landscape as both an idyll and the essence of national identity. As a subject for art, landscape corresponds to a received expectation of verisimilitude in the practice of painting, offering both reassurance and comfort. It is telling that there was a revival in English landscape art after both World Wars evoking a lost spiritual order, as though nature were somehow more benevolent and less chaotic than human affairs. The English have long idealised nature and their relationship to it as a retreat from the world where the pathetic fallacy could be nurtured away from the crisis of cultural change.
A prime example of this was the Arcadian socialist fantasy of William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England in the 1860s and 70s, who developed an appreciation of nature that was embodied in intricate designs for furniture, stained glass, wallpaper and fabric. John Ruskin's ideas concerning nature, art, morality, and the degradation of human labour through capitalism, were translated by Morris into a unified theory of design. In doing so, he successfully wedded aesthetics and an appetite for social reform. Nature, via Morris's enduring influence, became mediated through decoration in the home, representing a compensatory attitude that was seen as somehow more morally and spiritually satisfying for the individual than the early workings of capitalist culture.
As an extension of this political use of the aesthetics of nature, the depiction of landscape offered artists a sense of escape and reverie with a romantic quality of self-loss but also, conversely, a place where one might eventually find oneself. The English landscape has a further duality to its character in being both natural and profoundly shaped by man. It offers a malleable subject allowing deeply embedded stories and desires to unfold and continues to hold a high degree of fascination for artists through to the present day
In the monochrome canvases and wall paintings of Paul Morrison the basic elements of landscape are reconfigured inventively. He both reduces and enhances the complexity of nature using easily identifiable graphic tropes drawn from the history of painting, book illustrations, early photograms and cartoons. Morrison's pictorial concerns move deftly from the child-like innocence of a Disneyesque tree to a quasi scientific fascination for the complexity of form in a fern or branch, as in his canvas's Cryptogam (1999) and Endophyte (2000), or wall paintings Horizon (1999) and Interzone (1999). Some of the elements he uses are reminiscent of the early photograms and cyanotypes of Anna Atkins and William Henry Fox Talbot from the 1830s and 40s, which aestheticised nature by default. Their initial purpose was one of scientific classification and experiment, finding God in the details, as advocated by John Ruskin. However, their works took on a new contemplative beauty in isolating natural forms as a resource for art. These photograms were essentially typologies and this classificatory mentality is extended by Morrison as he summons up the viewer's powers of identification and recollection. There is always something familiar about his work because of the range of sources to which it refers.
Morrison's work is part of an art historical tradition that became highly developed by some of the most enduringly loved artists in England, such as John Constable and JMW Turner, through to Graham Sutherland and John Piper. However, it is Paul Nash who particularly appeals to Morrison with his unfussy, but nevertheless delicate painting style, employing muted and subtle tones to great aesthetic and psychological effect. His painting We Are Making A New World (1918) depicts, with chilling economy, the shelled and bombed wartime landscape of Flanders. It evokes a terrible sense of loss and misanthropy in the aftermath of unprecedented mass destruction and violence. However, this painting also looks to the redemptive quality of nature in the face of technological chaos. Nash's strong interest in Surrealism led to his juxtaposing unusual, but entirely convincing elements in his landscapes, conveying a compelling sense of the supernatural. Monuments, standing stones, moons, fungi, clumps of trees, and crashed fighter planes all appeared in an extraordinary series of paintings spanning the 1930s and 40s. Nash pushed his subjects matter far beyond its traditional limits to explore the visual fiction of painting and what truths it might reveal to the viewer.
Morrison is similarly interested in playing with facets of the landscape and it is hard to imagine a more democratic or populist imagery than that conjured up by his work. However, rather than be confined to recycling of natural forms he exploits a whole range of influences to develop his practice. Here, the comic book inspired exuberance of Roy Lichtenstein's paintings seems crucial. One need only look at Lichtenstein's Sussex (1964) to discern similarities in the depiction and use of landscape. Lichtenstein's images and brush-marks are sampled and reconfigured in a way that creates a new holistic quality which Morrison is keen to maintain in his own work. The cut and paste mentality is used seamlessly so as not to jar the composition Morrison has constructed for us: we are visually teased, charmed and seduced. Each painting has an effortless sense of hermetically sealed resolution and an internal logic that is easy to appreciate, but far from easy to achieve.
Lichtenstein updated modernist works of art that were overtly concerned with the impact of technological revolution on painting by mimicking a cheap industrial printing process used predominantly for comic books. He satirised both the expressiveness of painting, which had become hysterically over played in the 1950s, and the academic dryness of formalism. The irreverent standardising nature of Lichtenstein's work, drawing on modernist art history and consumer culture, has many resonances for Morrison. Both artists play with well-known genres, vacillating between formalism and representation in the service of a graphic optical experience. Lichtenstein recombined elements in witty recontextualisations with a reductive linear sensibility, allowing the viewer renewed enjoyment by way of pictorial recognition. Lichtenstein's Brushstroke paintings from the mid 1960s sample the essence of Abstract Expressionism with none of the associated emotional hyperbole and all the easy pleasure of the American popular culture he enjoyed and championed. Lichtenstein's art is one that smoothes out rough edges and scales down the emotive impasto of painting by using irony while skilfully avoiding alienation from his subject matter and medium
Morrison uses a similarly pared down language to represent nature and create a convincing picture. There is a drive towards standardisation by the use of interchangeable elements that play highly self-conscious decorative and illustrative games. He lovingly paints the optical buzz of the woodgrain of countryside fences to disrupt the picture plane or to frame the view in the background, as in his paintings Field (1998) and Sphere (1998/99). This fascination for woodgrain was well developed in Georges Braque's papiers collés from 1912-13 where the artist obviously enjoyed employing faux woodgrain wall paper as a readymade illusionistic element, used to unbalance and enhance the fiction of painterly verisimilitude. Morrison takes the same sort of pleasure in destabilising the familiar. His works are relational through the recycling of particular elements from painting to painting. Although these elements are wholly recognisable, his compositions use the formal language of abstract painting including grids, splatters, zips and all over treatments. In these pictures we peer through cracks and gaps in fences and thickets to see what lies beyond. Morrison is interested in the workings of peripheral vision and how an economy of attention might be deployed in both making and looking at a painting. His works draw attention to the framing of nature with which we are familiar from car and train travel, allowing effortless consumption of the landscape as a picture. Morrison also uses dramatic scale shifts, seen in his recent paintings Situation (2001) and Panicle (2000), where pictorial genres are hybridised and qualities of line are used to maximum effect in his highly artificial rural scenes.
This pleasure in the quality of line is shared with cartoonists such as Charles Shultz, George Herriman and Garry Trudeau. There is a succinctness that is without pretension. Morrison's works are pleasingly doubt free and they appear fully realised and confident in their brevity. The clarity in his graphic elements evokes a Hanna-Barbera aesthetic in the goofy petalled flowers, snow covered pines and stumpy oaks that seem to await the arrival of well known anthropomorphic characters. The contingent chaos of nature is tamed in Morrison's work through a language that has a lineage found in Japanese wood block printing and its highly radical influence on European art from the 19th century, through to Disney, DreamWorks and contemporary comic books. Cartoons and illustration offer a sense of comfort in that they corral complexity and contain a didactic quality of understanding and recognition that is easy to appreciate. Cartoon reality is the taming of nature into a schematic order and Morrison's works offer a graphic distillation that tidies up reality leaving it less contingent. This imagery makes innocents of us all, but is also capable of conveying complexity.
Scale plays a crucial part in Morrison's oeuvre, particularly when considering his wall paintings. Sometimes we are dwarfed by scenery depicted through the eye of an insect, looking up at giant ferns, flowers and weeds, sometimes it is an expansive scene that beckons us in to mentally ramble. His wall paintings work because they acknowledge the inherent fiction of the natural landscape and our culturally conditioned memories and expectations of it. Morrison brings these shared imprints of the landscape to bear upon different types of architectural space. The walls of a building become a projection screen for his paintings, allowing viewers to imagine a landscape beyond the boundaries of a room. One can easily see oneself as a character in these scenes, playing out adventures that are without consequence and therefore all the more seductive, while also appreciating the formal inventiveness of the work.
Morrison's paintings etch themselves into our memory through their strident qualities of line, pattern and composition. We develop a mental encyclopedia of natural forms from an early age so we are immediately implicated in these works via the irrepressible drive to achieve recognition and identification The reductive aspect of Morrison's work, depicting elements in either black or white, means that what we see is the residue of natural forms divorced from the specifics of a genius loci or particular historical time. This leaves us free to project ourselves into these pictures and flesh them out with the colours, smells and associations of our own personal experience. Morrison's work has an immediate charm and quality of recollection, as well as an unfolding sense of wonder and mysteriousness that brings a fresh vitality to the use of natural forms and landscape in art.