Paul Morrison


Black was everywhere in this show—in the treated film imagery, in the darkened projection space, and in the painting’s bifurcating forms, which promised to bleed off the canvas and onto the surrounding black walls. What Paul Morrison managed, though, was to hold in abeyance any sense that this darkness was unremitting. Instead, he invited viewers to find from within their own experience whatever color there might be in his starkly black-and-white works. A large painting of tree branches in silhouette against a white ground hung in one space, the walls of which had been painted black. In the other room Morrison played a short film—barely two minutes long—looped onto DVD. Both works bear the same title, Cambium, 2002.

The cambium is the part of a tree just below the bark, in which the plant’s new growth occurs, the cellular deposits forming each year’s growth ring. Morrison’s use of this botanical term is an indication of his interest in the idea that, whether or not he is himself qualified to do so, nature is observable in scientific ways. The word also means exchange, a process that is more broadly appropriate to Morrison’s ongoing conversation—carried on through his highly stylized imagery—with the tradition of painting in general and landscape painting in particular. Observational exactitude gets filtered through radical caricature.

At around nine by thirteen feet, the canvas is Morrison’s largest yet. Though much of its area is covered by the forkings of branches and twigs on what looks like a pine of some sort, the painting is dominated by two main boughs that run diagonally down from the upper edges on each side. It’s a weird kind of Morris Louis “Unfurled.” The ultimate in abstract painting, whose spatial subtleties were intimated through the juxtaposition of and interference among different hues, has bizarrely become a black-and-white representation of nature. Louis’s paint, moreover, used gravity to run down a canvas that always insisted on its flatness and which refused to figure as space in the conventional, perspectival sense. Perversely, Cambium has us believe we are looking as it were against gravity: not at a surface, but up through the branches to the sky above.

Cambium the film is a collage of excerpts from a number of movies, each clip showing some aspect of landscape. There is a view of parkland across a lake, a leaf floating down a stream, foliage moving in the wind, a bare tree with fields behind it, a water droplet falling down rocks, and so on. The sound track is nothing more than an intermittent artificial thunderclap, the ultimate movie cliché for designating the imminence of dark or malign forces. Morrison has altered the footage considerably, not least in draining it of color; but though we might not spot their precise origins in Marathon Man, The Evil Dead, or Fantasia, it is easy to recognize that the scenes have been sourced from films representing a variety of genres from thriller and horror to cartoon musical. Here, as through the echo of Louis in the painting, the awareness of color floods back in again, animated by its implied existence flickering between scenes that are by turns idyllic, ersatz, threatening, and seductive.

Michael Archer