Los Angeles

James Morris

Saxon-Lee Gallery

James Morris calls his paintings “American History Sublime,” advocating what he calls a “cynically optimistic” view in which doubt and reason grapple together, with at least some hope of transcendence. Morris’ early combinations of found images and narrative text were heavily influenced by the Art & Language group. However, these initial experiments quickly evolved during the mid ’80s into more ambiguous multiple-panel formats in which contradictory systems of visual language played out a form of stalemate, an uneasy duality between the idea of the sublime and the inevitable elusiveness of its realization. The same concerns underlie Morris’ latest paintings. But for the fact that all the light has been sucked out of them, these dark, sometimes indecipherable vistas might conjure up Corot’s fuzzy, poeticized landscapes or Caspar David Friedrich’s 19th-century Romantic treatises. The landscape, in the past a metaphor for life force, god, or spiritual salve, is relocated to a conceptual role “as propaganda for what things could or should be,” as Morris puts it in his artist’s statement.

Deconstructing the rhetoric of painting, Morris alludes to photographic processes, color cue cards, and the retinal effects of impastoed color in much the same way as Gerhard Richter. INSIDE: View from His Window: Painting for Joseph Nièpce, 1987, for example, refers to the historic first photograph made by Nièpce in 1826. Morris has abstracted this stark contrast in dark and light, the shadowy wall of the photographer’s studio framing the bright landscape beyond, into a simple diptych. The left half reduces the interior to a brown color-field painting while the right half muddies the exterior into an impressionist “landscape,” a mottled expanse of blues and greens. The photograph has thus been absorbed by the language of painting, then reasserted via the similarity of Morris’ diptych to a grainy photographic enlargement with an accompanying color swatch. Morris seems to be saying that any remaining “aura” left to either painterly or mechanical reproduction is dependent on the intercession of history, language, and process.

Such dislocation is further exacerbated by Morris’ constant references to popular culture. A deeply hued, almost heroic rendition of a Romantic scene is titled Art History—World History (Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues), 1987, while a small vignette from the same year, grandiosely named The World as an Image of God, is quickly deflated with the subtitle (How Does It Feel to Be Just Like a Rolling Stone). By injecting Bob Dylan’s lyrics into the painterly sublime, Morris is delineating all painting as a manifestation of popular culture. Landscape painting becomes yet one more link in a complex chain of arbitrary visual metaphors. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Morris’ works as mere deconstructive tools. They assert themselves as autonomous images in their own right, creating the sense of a momentary if fallen sublime through a highly seductive, sensuous lyricism. Morris’ work remains as cynically optimistic as ever.

Colin Gardner