|Alex Gene Morrison | Same As It Ever Was|
|Friday June 27th – Saturday July 26th 2014|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Alex Gene Morrison with his second one person exhibition at the gallery.
This new collection of paintings signifies a culmination of ideas that Morrison has been exploring for over ten years. There is a distinctively anthropological feeling to his images of skulls, forests, monsters and totemic abstract forms that call to mind the primitive and tribal. Signifiers of fire and raw electrical energy convey thoughts of destruction, transformation and re-animation via elemental forces. Morrison reminds us that there are embedded, archetypal elements within us that abridge modern and primeval man. Simultaneously, ongoing obsessions with horror and sci-fi movies; video games; sub cultural design; alternative music and the oppressive, unrelenting rhythms of Doom Metal all seep into and out of the work.
This sense of deep time, which is intrinsic to the work, is coupled with a knowing enquiry into Modern abstract painting, where Morrison references formalist tropes that were defined by 20th century avant-garde movements including Suprematism, Vorticism, Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Geo. Inherent within all of these was a departure from representation and gravitation towards a search for purity of expression and the universal via abstraction. Morrison intelligently absorbs these ideological and painterly languages, and in doing so, creates a unique and alternative visual language that invites his audience to go behind the surface through fractures, splits and tears. Rendered in dark, textured paint and in combination with his use of archetypal simulacra, Morrison presents us with resonant, metaphysical paintings.
|Kill All Monsters|
|CHEMICAL WARFARE, I wrote in large letters next to Alex Gene Morrison’s name in a notebook from 2002. It is all I need to recall the painting he was exhibiting - a queasily coloured image in oil called ‘I see dragons in your eyes’ depicting a hooded form marching through radioactive slime. Why I chose to describe it in this way has, I think, something to do with the time and place. Morrison was among a group of artists working out of a makeshift studio/exhibition space in Dalston who painted the motifs of their youth; skulls, arcade games, schlock horror and thrash metal (co-incidentally Chemical Warfare is a song by Slayer) – the detritus of cold war politics and the computing revolution which skate culture appropriated in the 1980s.
Until the new Millennia, the 1980s had been in aesthetic fall out, but now artists were reviving certain aspects of this bombastic era. There were Kirsten Glass’ slick collages inspired by the David Salle School of glamour and Luke Caulfield’s urban teenagers wearing their allegiances to Death Metal on their t-shirts. Exhibitions like the Barbican’s ‘Game On’, presented a considered historical view of the video game and the Japan pavilion at the Venice Biennale gave itself over to the golden arches. Even so, the idea of Donkey Kong, Gremlins, and that particular 80s palette which can only be described as Ocean Pacific, still engendered a certain amount of scepticism. For many, this renewed interest by young artists in such 80s icons as Pac-Man, was viewed by the gallery going public with the nonplussed apprehension of coming across a Zombie and finding they had no wall to jump over.
Morrison stopped painting in the colours of a low-budget video rental store a few years ago, yet some of the motifs he used from that time have remained. In particular the oddly-formed prehistoric faces, one of which in ‘Skull’ is just discernable in the gloom of the canvas like a cave painting weakly illuminated by the glow of a dying flashlight. The face could be a crude self-portrait or a Jungian archetype, but equally the primitivism could refer to the rudimentary beings developed in the 1980s in early video games.
Another image Morrison has used before is the amorphous form in ‘Black Bile’, which is as close to what I imagine the parasitic extra-terrestrial in ‘The Thing’ is. He was nominated for the John Moores Painting Prize in 2009 with a version of this image, except here the paint is as glossy as shellac and the brush marks mirror the grooves of a 12inch record. Like all of the works in this new series, Morrison has reduced his palette almost entirely to black, purple and red, colours favoured by Heavy Metal, and it is no co-incidence that certain themes embraced by this subculture - witchcraft, Nazis, crucifixes - are alluded to in Morrison’s work.
I get the feeling Morrison is finally beginning to enjoy his black period. He has often described his art as tragicomic and has always been drawn to the dumber aspects of the subjects he paints. He will go for the melting faces and pickled corpses in horror movies over the spine chilling atmosphere any day and the same goes for this new series, which ironically sees Morrison’s lighter side emerge from the rather severe abstracts of a couple of years ago. Both ‘Raw Sorcery (RAM)’ and ‘Arise’ could easily sit on the back cover of a Metallica album. The sexual overtones of ‘Raw Sorcery’ (a medieval battering ram bursting through a lightning bolt) are as blatant as the Satanic crucifix is in ‘Arise’ and as a result borrow from the dopey humour that saved Thrash Metal from developing the self-aggrandizing masturbatory excesses of their Prog rock predecessors.
The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the appropriation of swastikas and other fascist symbols in Heavy Metal is a way of ‘de-semanticizing’ totalitarian ideology, essentially neutralising fascism by emphasizing its own absurdities. The German artist Anselm Kiefer achieved a similar thing in the late 1960s, when he photographed himself in mock-heroic poses giving the Nazi salute by public monuments.
It is no great surprise that Heavy Metal emerged in the right wing era of Reagan and Thatcher but that it continues to be thought of as proto-fascist. In ‘Shadow’ and ‘Sinister’ Morrison presents two paintings that could be said to confront this paradox. The former depicts a black right hand evocative of cave paintings and healing Shamanic rituals, the latter depicts a red slash against a black canvas that runs unusually from top left to bottom right. This is sometimes called a ‘sinister diagonal’ from the Latin word sinistra, which originally meant ‘left’ before it came to mean ‘evil’ or ‘unlucky’. Morrison paints this accursed shard in a primary red, liberating it from the crepuscular background. It could be an act of redemption, and that’s important, because there’s nothing a Metal band loves more than more than delivering salvation.
|QU'EST QUE C'EST|
|Listening to Alex Gene Morrison’s Recent Paintings|
|What is it these paintings, by Alex Gene Morrison under the umbrella title “Same As It Ever Was”, are saying to me? Initially they have the echoes of Babel’s Tower. Black fragments, quotations from past ‘isms scatter themselves around the gallery walls. Languages of figuration: geometric abstraction, modernism, constructivism, symbolism, all shuffling for dominance and potential confusion during the building of the tower that is this body of work.
I’m called into the darkest depths of a small painting with the title “ Forest (with inverted symbols)”. It seems to be telling me ‘there is nothing more than melancholy here’, maybe a nod towards Romanticism (or not). In this darkness nothing more than a slipping line of sap, amber seems to point away from the darkness, but even this feels like a moment of entrapment. In the black searching darkness of these paintings there is a looming sadness that almost gives up hope.
This black seems to be there to keep us out, do not enter, enter at your own risk. As I view the other works in the show the black ‘blocked’ Malevich references and a huge primal, silhouetted hand, as well as the startling fluorescent flashes of colour, all seem to be hiding something beyond the canvas surface, something not for our eyes.
Then the wonderfully crafted paintings start to reveal moments of care and obsessive attention to detail, the fluid rhythm of thick black paint ‘edges’ against an impasto green glazed area. The bright colour, as rips or gaps or cracks or spaces become voids, blinding us to the space they open up beyond the darkness.
Holding your hand up, mimicking the huge hand in one of the paintings, you can protect your vision from the brightness. When I do this, the black gradually becomes ‘fur’ before my eyes as thinly dashed gentle brush strokes mimic the real world. It’s not fur, it’s paint, but it has the gentle fluidity of small hairs growing and flowing over a body. The fur of a bear, the fur of a cat, a fur that in the next painting becomes so thick that its textured surface is not illusion but is physically retaining the structure of fur left by the hair of the brush. Then the paint lodges against another area of thinly worked brush strokes right up to the edges, as the painting attempts to hold onto its physical existence in the real world.
These paintings don’t let me in, but they do hold me in dialogue. They tell me that they are exploring the possibility of things that are long gone, to reappear in a new form, no longer flat, but suggestive, a figurative minimalism, a minimal figuration is being discussed openly. But maybe the painter is not quite yet ready to reveal the findings or to show us what the paintings are hiding.
Morrison’s work tells the story of an artist who is in search for the answer to the possibilities of painting. To make audible the silent voice of ‘thought’ navigating and communicating with a material that is not held back from reflexive dialogue by programmes or equipment, but has the instant ability to converse with the maker, to guide the maker during its making, to be in dialogue with both the artist and the audience about its coming into existence.
These paintings initially hide their generosity. It takes time for them to reveal themselves. I leave wanting more, I want to see the other side of the hand, I want to see what place causes the fluorescent flashes, I want to see if the black is a cast shadow or the surface of a place or a being, what causes them?
I hear what they are saying, they are whispering it – “This is what I’m doing”, “this is what it looks like to be doing this”… It’s not the same as it ever was any more. Morrison’s sampling of the past transforms each fragment into something new for today. Now I think I want to hear them speak more loudly and maybe more directly, a cliffhanger. I want to see the next episode.