17th November - 10th December 2005

Mali Morris:
Paintings from Four Decades



Mali Morris: Paintings from Four Decades

On a chilly day last April, drinking tea with Mali Morris in her Deptford studio and reviewing the paintings under consideration for this exhibition, I tried to remember when we’d first looked at her work together. It was disconcerting to realize that it was nearly thirty years ago, when I was a fledgling curator and she a young artist beginning to announce herself as someone to be reckoned with. While I couldn’t pinpoint precisely my initial encounter with Morris’s paintings (was it in an exhibition? in her studio?) I vividly recalled how engaged I had been by her exuberant gestural canvases of the 1970s. I remember being impressed by the clarity of her imagery, the expressiveness of her touch, and the originality and inventiveness of her colour. While her pictures were then, as they are now, richly evocative, suggestive of everything from qualities of landscape and light to shifts in mood and emotional temperature (I later discovered that she often drew from nature or made free, exuberant watercolours), they were unequivocally abstract. Their power to trigger associations was largely the result of Morris’s sensitivity to the fundamental qualities of her chosen medium and her ability to orchestrate not only hue, shape, and placement, but also density, edge, and direction, for maximum expressive impact.

I remember being struck, as well, by what has proved to be another important characteristic of Morris’s work: the apparent spontaneity of her paintings. Then, as now, they seemed to have been (and indeed, were) arrived at without preconception — which is not to say that they were not generated by clear-headed notions of pictorial possibilities — but rather, they were the result of a preternatural alertness to the meaning of what emerges in the act of painting. Morris’s pictorial language is a language of making, of the material properties of paint, its sensuality and fluidity, its responsiveness and resistance, and of what it felt like to manipulate this remarkable substance. Yet, while it was evident from the first that she was an extremely intuitive artist, as well as an extremely intelligent one, it was equally plain that she was as ready (perhaps even more ready) to reject the results of her impulses as to accept them. Morris is no minimalist, but it has long been evident that she sets high value on economy, as if she were testing how much could be said with how little.

These phrases could obviously apply just as well to Morris’s most recent works, with their forthright, centralised “events”, their energetic swirls and swoops of pigment, and their radiant hues. In fact, that April afternoon, as she and I looked at pictures spanning the four decades of the 1970s to the present, powerful constants became increasingly apparent, all but overwhelming the differences between various bodies of work: the clarity that distinguished Morris’s paintings from the start, the eloquence of her touch, and the individuality of her palette. If anything, these qualities have intensified over the years, as she has matured and grown as an artist. Yet it is also true that her recent work embodies important changes in her intentions and approach, changes that are at once logical developments of the implications of earlier work and deliberate rejections of some of her previous assumptions.

Morris’s trajectory can be described as a quest for greater and greater economy and singularity in the service of greater and greater immediacy. The first sign of her pursuit of these goals came in the 1980s with a series of paintings based on diamond shapes. “They were the beginning,” Morris says, “of one kind of shift — moving away from relational colour. I felt I had come to a full stop with that. I wanted colour that was constructed differently, colour that wasn’t read laterally. I wanted colour to come to meet the eye.” The frontal diamonds signalled another important change, as well. Morris was determined to eliminate the separation between drawing and painting in her work. “I was beginning to realize that colour determined drawing and I wanted to explore that. In the diamonds, the arm is moved out to make a stroke and then moved back on itself, so that putting down the colour makes the shape.” A series composed of densely packed, short, blocky stripes followed. “The stripes were a way of moving away from a kind of full blown gesturalism,” Morris explains. “I could be very free with the touch but the arm wasn’t moving out into a gesture.”

Both the diamond and stripe motifs were simple enough to allow Morris the directness and clarity she sought, at the same time that they provided her with enough incident to explore nuances of surface and a wide range of her characteristically lush, surprising hues. Typically, however, she was unwilling to settle for familiar ways of putting pictures together, no matter how successful or satisfying, and in the early 1990s she began a series that, in retrospect, seems the result of dissecting the diamond and stripe paintings into their component parts and recombining them. The result was free-wheeling compositions in which triangular shapes and nests of angled lines, like fragments of both earlier series, float against brushy sheets of colour, simultaneously carving out space and asserting the flatness of the expanse.

Morris abandoned this series because, she says, “I wanted more colour.” In the mid-90s, she began to build her paintings out of large, richly hued shapes with sinuous, undulating edges, shimmying presences that seemed, paradoxically, to interlock, jostle, and overlap, all at the same time. Th e space of these paintings was engagingly ambiguous; it was almost impossible to decide what was on top of what. “I wanted an interchange of the colour 'figure’ and the 'ground’,” Morris says. “I wanted another kind of space.” Paradoxically, too, the images seemed larger than the canvases that contained them, as if everything were sliding beyond the edges of the rectangle. This was equally true of the narrow vertical compositions of this type or the squarer cousins, in which a wavy-edged “rosette” usually drifted upward, rising from layers of energetically stroked pigment. Each shape had its own pulsing rhythm, surface, and hue, as if each colour had determined the drawing of its edges, its size and proportion, and even the rhythm of Morris’s touch.

The paintings of the past decade can be read as fulfilments and expansions of the implications of the “undulating” images, particularly of the “rosette” versions. Morris’s recent works are frontal compositions that pit a centralised rounded shape against a subtly adjusted rectangle. At first viewing, they seem deadpan, assertive, and relatively easy to grasp, with their symmetrical organization and declarative structure, but with longer acquaintance, their true complexity declares itself. Not only are the chromatic harmonies and tonal orchestrations of each painting utterly surprising and unnamable, but the symmetry and apparent forthrightness are also deceptive. Each centralised configuration has its own character and placement against the rectangle. Some appear to have been swirled into being; others are momentary gatherings of stabs of the brush, apparently held together by molecular attraction; still others are as formal and stylised as an Edwardian brooch or as casual as coiled ribbons.

In her recent works, Morris has fully achieved her long-standing desire for “colour that comes to meet the eye” and for pictorial organization that depends neither on relationships that develop laterally across the canvas nor on traditional figure-ground interchanges. Instead, she has created images in which each colour event — each swirl, coil, or cluster of dots — has its own spatial position in relation to the expanse of colour that surrounds it. We seem to be seeing into layers of incident, but not as we do in illusionistic works in which traditional perspective negates the surface of the painting to allow us a fictive world. Morris’s configurations remain intensely physically present as incidents of paint on a surface, yet at the same time, they apparently hover in front of that surface; any lingering associations of the centralised shape with forms in space seem to reverse themselves and considerations of “figure” and “ground” become irrelevant.

Often, the seemingly imposed swirls, coils, and dots of Morris’s recent images are made by wiping out, by removing, rather than adding pigment. The process creates unpredictable modulations of colour and also makes the “hovering” centralised events read as being simultaneously within and contiguous with their surroundings, a seeming contradiction that heightens the tension of the series. Morris’s comments on the process are the pragmatic responses of a serious working painter. “Taking away is also another way of arriving at colour,” she says. “I don’t want it to be a perceptual conundrum, but spatially I find it really interesting.” We sit silent for a while, drinking our tea and studying the varied, compelling pictures lined up against the studio wall. Then Morris adds, “It keeps me thinking ahead — it’s construction through seeing.” She could have been describing her preoccupations of the past four decades.

Karen Wilkin
New York, June 2005