Thursday, September 25, 2014

George Morrison's Horizons


Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1990, acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 1/8 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Museum Purchase. 99.04.02.03. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

In late August I was lucky to see a show at Indianapolis's Eiteljorg Museum of Indians and Western Art. Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison is now in transit to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where it opens on October 25. I had not before known of George Morrison and could only marvel how this could be. His work—painting, drawing, wood collage, wood sculpture, lithography—responds across a sixty-year career to the art movements of his time: regionalism, surrealism, cubism, and abstract expressionism. 


Morrison moved in the 40's from Minnesota, where he grew up and studied at the Minnesota School of Art, to New York City, where he attended the Art Students League. He was close with Franz Kline, and he moved in the circle of Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell, Joan Mitchell—the New York School. He was one of them and he showed with them. He had his first solo show in 1948. 

By 1970, when Morrison returned to his home state and a faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota, he had achieved considerable recognition in the forms of purchase prizes and awards. At the University, he was appointed to two faculties: studio art and American Indian studies. 

Morrison was a Chippewa from the Grand Portage Reservation, a fact that had had little presence in either the content, materials, or techniques of his work. In New York, his colleagues had been unaware of his ethnic background, which had not been a preoccupation for him. His interests and goals were the same as the other artists around him. He was not identified as an "Indian" artist until his return to Minnesota, where knowledge of his Chippewa identity created controversies about "who he was" as an artist. Despite his excellence and eminence as a modern artist, there were curators who declined to show him with other Native artists because his art didn't look like Indian art. Morrison was comfortable with his heritage; he was comfortable too with his cosmopolitan point of view.

As he aged, Morrison's Chippewa heritage took a more prominent place in his work. This resulted not from social pressure but from the natural process of his life journey and growing understanding of his own story. In the catalogue that shares the show's name, Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison by W. Jackson Rushing III and Kristin Makholm (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), plates show many works that arise from or include this impulse. They are consonant, though, with his work as cubist, abstract expressionist, and master of materials in traditions that relate him to Picasso more than to traditional Navajo art. Indeed, he faced the prejudice that "Indian" art was usually expected to include the iconography of the southwest tribes. Morrison's work lacked suns. What kind of Indian art was that?
Untitled (Quarry Face), 1949, pencil, pastel, and ink on paper, 18 x 24 in. Minnesota Museum of American Art. Acquisition Fund Purchase. 94.01.11. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Modern Spirit is alive with beautiful and sophisticated work, much from the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. It's a great pity that Morrison seems, though, to be cramped into the position of regional and Native American artist. He is clearly of the world-class stature he enjoyed when he worked in New York. It's disconcerting to see that when he returned to teach and continue his distinguished work in Minnesota, he was cast as a regional and ethnic artist. The current show toured to New York in 2013, exhibited at the National Museum of the American Indian. Its other stops are (or have been) Fargo, Indianapolis (Museum of Indians and Western Art), Phoenix, and St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center. What about the Whitney? The Smithsonian? The Hunter Museum in Chattanooga? An American art museum? A modern art museum? Evidently the dilemma of identity-based interpretation remains unresolved. He is a major Native American artist and took pride in that. To the extent that ethnic identity ghettoizes his work, it's a loss for many who would appreciate Morrison in all his breadth and would appreciate equally the inclusion of Native American artists as "normal."

 A variety of themes and visual motifs run throughout Morrison's work, from earliest to late. I was particularly attracted to his use of the long landscape with implicit or explicit horizon line. This orientation fascinates me for all the things it can signify and can invoke in feeling. His spider-covered 1949 drawing, Quarry Face, above, is both landscape (distant) and suggests by its title a surface close enough to touch; the "spiders" reinforce this latter idea. 

The boxes created by horizontal and vertical lines, which might create the lapidary effect of a rock wall, seems to intensify the flow of the lines from left to right, where colors change at the borders. Each "box" both contains a truncated landscape view (defined by color) and extends it by line to connect with its neighbor. The several white circles with differently defined edges read like moons over different prospects. They further complicate not the landscape, but the multiplicity of stratified landscapes layered across the drawing. 

Is it landscape? It's length compared to height makes it technically so. It's an abstract drawing. Is it more? The connected sinuous line that directs itself upward from left to right in the top quadrant forms a horizon, cutting across the entire plane.
Untitled, 1978, lithograph, 30 x 44 1/2 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Gift of Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis. 79.42.14. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Morrison's 1978 monochromatic lithograph shows some of the same features of the1949 color drawing. One of Morrison's techniques was to make large, long collages of wood. This is a print pulled from such a collage. Like the earlier drawing, there is the tension between close and far away: We might place our hands directly on this surface; perhaps it's a wall that blocks our movement. Or we might be observing an abstract, two-dimensional representation of a faraway space. Again, three-quarters of the way up, Morrison has placed a line that divides the image horizontally. It sits like a high horizon line, suggesting that we consider Above and Below as spaces with different significances.

Morning Storm, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1986, acrylic on canvas board, 6 x 11 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Acquisition Fund Purchase.  87.17.2. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Morrison's connection to the landscape of his childhood on the Lake Superior shoreline becomes literal in the horizontal paintings and pastels of his artistically fertile 70s. While the horizon where water and land, or water and sky meet are a constant subject, the energetic and fully engaged explorations of color, materials, and form are of no less interest than the spiritual content. In Morning Storm, Red Rock Variation, above, again he makes us debate about the represented space, giving this miniature, high-surfaced painting the feel of a colossal work. The blocks of color in the bottom section could, as in the others we've seen, be stones in a wall—tactile, immediate, and topped by an edge, until the merging ideas of edge and horizon soften into ambiguity.
Awakening, Time Edge Rising, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1990, acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 3/8 x 30 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Museum Purchase. 99.04.02.01. Courtesy of Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Both Awakening, above, and Spirit Path, New Day, which opens this article, were accomplished when Morrison was 71, with another ten years ahead of him. These acrylic and pastel paintings are more impressionistic now than expressionistic. His distribution of color in patches seems to describe the experience of something real, something with stunning sensory impact. These colors are reminiscent of Monet, so there's that art historical connection.

Monet was an explorer of natural light: he did not invent colors, but worked to record what he saw. Using a similar palette, did Morrison do the same? Did he record what he saw at dawn on Lake Superior in different atmospheric conditions? I tend to doubt that that was all there was to it, for what it seems that Morrison recorded throughout his career-long, multi-media work in landscape form was always abstract. He seems not to have been interested in pictorial landscape. Rather, he appears to have been concerned with artistic form and with what one associates with it or embeds in the form. His later landscapes—the ones that are acknowledged as such—are visions really of water and sky, but of water that generates fire, of flaming spirit that unifies heaven and earth. The work is intensely visionary, and those visions may have their roots in the painter's ties to the earth of a Chippewa reservation on Lake Superior and to traditional cultural ideas of the ascendent soul and its powers.

It could be. Perhaps not. Morrison was a Native American and a phenomenal artist. These landscapes seem to be directly linked to places and inspiration from his Native heritage. Morrison was also an American artist of the New York School. His work is linked to significant strands of modern, Western art. In Modern Spirit we see the work of an artist who negotiated the scene—simultaneously present and far away—through his own integrative cultural experience: only his own.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Contemporary Artists Showcase Eastern Papers at the Morgan Conservatory

Yuko Kimura, Tiny Sample Book. Ca. life sized. What is paper for, if not for books. This on becomes an object of desire with its collection
of Eastern papers in a variety of sensuous textures, colors, and weaves.

Cleveland's Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory is a jewel in the city's civic crown. Renowned in the nation's papermaking community, the Morgan attracts the world's most illustrious and creative paper artists to its facilities, which house state-of-the art equipment and facilities for training in every traditional and experimental method of working with paper fibers.
In 2014, the Conservatory celebrates the opening of its unique Eastern Paper Studio, the nation's first. They already have the largest paper mulberry tree (kozo) grove in the country, and in 2010 installed the only American studio for the ancient art of Korean paper making (hanji). Now Morgan has the specialized, up-to-date equipment to support the ancient Eastern papermaking practices. Eastern papermaking differs from Western in that it derives from the nature of long fibers—kozo, gampi, abaca, hanji, and several others. The papers are thin, silky, alluring to hand and eye. Despite their sensuous qualities are unusually tough.Eastern Paper Studio was introduced to the public in a recent, sublime show of works by the finest of paper artists. The show displayed the wide variety in the properties of  the fibers, including works diaphanous and solid; works suggestive of painting, of ceramics, textiles, and biomorphic forms. Curated and hung for maximum variety and tantalizing juxtapositions, Mason Milani demonstrated his eye and the promise of an exceptional season. One of the show-stoppers for its size, color and variety of references is Julie McLaughlin's "Kimono as Art," above. The idea of paper garments as novelty fashion has been around for a long time. McLaughlin makes it clear that she is thinking in bigger and bolder terms. This piece must be at least seven feet tall. If it's comparable to anything, it's to Jim Dine's kimonos—but even that is a stretch. This is real, three-dimensional, and has all the qualities of rare textile with advantages that textile cannot present. This kimono was created from whole, "paper-thin" sheets of hand-made kozo papers that the artist dyed and decorated herself with paper pulp landscape.Books are demonstrated in this show not only by Kimura's tiny book, which indulges us in the beauty of materials, but in Melissa Jay Craig's "The Trouble with That Theory: Cliff Notes." Here, well-chosen materials support a cutting, satirical point. Her papers are made from Thai kozo bark lace, flax, kozo and milkweed sheets, and milkweed fiber with joomchi (A Korean method of making textured paper with water). Sagging covers and blanks that serve as positive space, support truncated pages that have...come unrooted? Been shredded? Craig's book may further suggest the disintegration of the book as an object of significance in the culture, perhaps eaten away by students' dependence on the speed of the Internet. This object is a great display of the creative possibilities Eastern papers, allowing the flexibility, strength, and variety of textures to allow the complex messages of this work.Julie Sirek too, is concerned with the idea of disappearance, which her Korean fibers, joomchi and hanji allow her to achieve. She makes a cloth-like paper that has the delicacy of a fabric worn to the point of a tissue, ready to disintegrate entirely. Sirek uses a full sized dress as symbol for the absent or disappearing woman; the dress is like an abandoned crustacean's shell. We don't have the sense that it has been outgrown, though, but that the inhabitant has been reduced—psychically or by violence. The sorrow is stated in the material, held together only by the lattice around its holes.Hanji, with which Sirek fashions a dress from spaces, in the hands of Aimee Lee serves as the basis for the Korean craft of jiseung, or paper weaving. Strips of this paper are woven into strands so present and strong that they are fashioned into functional baskets, water gourds, and sandals. Lee's hand is on her baskets from the harvest of the hanji fiber through its cooking and beating, its formation into cords, and its weaving to shape traditional forms. Each vessel is glazed with persimmon dye, giving it a shining, uniform surface that easily tricks the eye into thinking it a textured ceramic.Jill Powers is a sculptor who uses the strength of kozo bark fiber for casting. She is not a traditionalist. She intuits and responds to her own interpretation of the fiber's the feel. She has developed casting techniques that are all her own. Her concern in not only for the ultimate shape of the artwork, but also for the way that it highlights the kozo bark itself. Her works are porous, allowing light to penetrate them while exposing the nature of the long fibers. Both the material and the finished work are displayed. With a consciousness every artist in this show demonstrates, she is mindful that there would be no art without careful cultivation of the plant itself. Every paper work begins in the earth. Her sculpture of a hand cradling a bee that does not sting; her basket of flames that don't consume—these are powerful metaphors for a relationship of trust in powerful nature and willingness to use it without conquest.The use of the natural as benign background and foreground both is a technique used to beautiful effect in Velma Bolyard's hanging Rain Garden. This series of panels is a peace garden that beguiles and calms both from a distance and from close up, when its vines, leaves, and flowers come into focus. Her method is contact/eco printing on Awagami Gregory kozo paper. The material must be chosen carefully: The hangings are folded gently into panels that nevertheless fall naturally, and the paper holds the ink of the contact prints in a romantic, present/fading way. The integration of all the elements make it a particularly natural work in all senses.Chicago's Melissa Jay Craig integrates material, subject, and artifact in a series of works in cast paper and bark. These are based on microscopic views of plant roots and stems. These large, circular pieces could be folkloric rugs—gay, irregular, beguiling in their detailed simplicity: flaunting the qualities of the handmade. But her titles are scientific, referring to the biological aspects of nature that inspire the work. In botany she literally explores the intimate convergence of Art and Nature.
Each of the three from this series is not only visually distinctive, but has its own scientific reference. Mycellian Query, matted and beaten, refers to mycelia, the fibrous parts of fungus. Flat Anaphase, Amaranthine is outlined in the purplish color of amaranth. In the center, in the act of mitosis, chromosomes migrate to opposite ends of the cell. The richness of color and the central motif are easily suggest lapidary art, an antique brooch of geometrically arranged Highlands stones. Craig's Root/Basis provides an occasion for her to demonstrate yet another technique while sticking to her theme. This gem-like cutaway section of a root is cast of abaca and kozo. It's surface is formed from hundreds of distinct, raised cells. Not only its beauty, but the concept this brought home to me—of life's aggregation of the minute into the visible; of Craig's bringing so vividly to mind the life we neglect without curiosity—make this a masterwork on a variety of levels. It feels bad to review a show after it has closed. I can recommend that you purchase the informative and beautiful catalogue ($10 from the Morgan Conservatory ) and keep up with the work of these artists. Each is a major figure in the community of papermakers—in the community of sculptors and multimedia artists—and a treasure in the world of American art.
Bridget O'Malley, Pattern Recognition. Watermark in handmade kozo,
 with shadow on the wall. Detail of triptych.
Melissa Jay Craig, Mycellian Query, detail
Velma Bolyard, Rain Garden