Michael Morris

University of British Columbia

The spirit of much of Michael Morris’s current work is summed up in a 1966 painting (owned by the Vancouver Art Gallery) called The Problem of Nothing. Many of the formal elements which frequently appear in his work are present or hinted at in it; and, although it is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, yet it exposes with surprising clarity a distinct underlying philosophy.

In this painting we see a bubble emerging from a box within a box within a box which comprises the outer dimensions of the painting itself. A three-sided border in white encloses a vertically striped horizontal rectangle painted in gradations of red sitting upon a blue base flush with the bottom of the picture frame. Within the rectangle there sits (also on the blue base) a small, vertical box drawn with depth illusion, the top of which, in distorted perspective, is diagonally striped, and has, emerging from it, a large comic strip balloon. There are no words in the balloon, only horizontal stripes (contrasting sharply with the vertical lines of the rectangle) in pale yellow, indigo, grey, azure blue, and pale mauve. The impact of the “message” nearly deafens.

Morris’s silent sounds and forms appear in many of his paintings and prints: long ovals like large gelatin capsules; circles enclosing fan-shaped diagrams; pipe like Leger schemes snaking their way through vari-colored stripes; striped cartoon sun rays, pushing outward to make startling perspectives; odd, ambiguous drawings of non-existent and non-existable structures; mute exploding sunbursts which appear to be trying to announce the supermarket special for the week, whose message cannot be detected by the ear or eye, but yet is somehow understood; letters of the alphabet indifferent to the need to join with others to make words; shapes unexpectedly shifting into other shapes, surprising, discontinuous and indeterminate, forcing the observer through a curious emotional labyrinth of nostalgic shapes and patterns subtly put together, twisting, turning, interrupting in astonishing succession.

To Michael Morris, the best art today is a put-down; it is deliberately subversive, utterly useless, consciously caught up in its own time, seriously intent upon producing monuments to nothing. Among his monuments to nothing, Morris is producing many which contain a theatrical bow to the thirties in general, and to Busby Berkeley in particular. Yet they represent an attitude which is less a real nostalgia for the thirties as such, which Morris never knew (having been born in 1942), than it is a total involvement with today, part of which is thirties oriented. To the more casual observer, his paintings may look hard-edge; but Morris’s concern is the manipulation of what he calls a “phony formalism,” which he uses precisely to overcome concerns rather than to get caught up in them, a rejection, in effect, of anything that might be called a “school,” a “movement,” or a “period.” One of the concerns he had to shake was Marcel Duchamp, as Duchamp was moved to rid himself of Leonardo, and as Rauschenberg had to destroy de Kooning: two art gestures of our century which Morris considers to have been supreme, finishing off the avant-garde and the isms, and opening up to artists all possibilities and directions, any one of which is valid as long as it is born of the necessity of the moment. To Morris, the greatest danger lies in the excesses of self-consciousness, both in life and art, and in defining one’s area too closely. The artist as documenter is far more to his taste than is the artist as culture hero or ennobled sufferer.

Alvin Balkind