It dawned on me while visiting Rebecca Morris’ show at Corbett vs. Dempsey, that I’ve known her for nearly twenty years. We first met at a lecture in 1997, but we didn’t really become friendly until 2004 when she needed a studio assistant. On a practical level, working for Rebecca was an extension of my graduate education and a lesson in the ethical treatment of others in the art world. Over the two years that I worked for Rebecca, she was thoughtful in our interactions. The tasks were almost exclusively prepping for painting and canvas stretching. Once, while preparing a seven by nine foot painting, one of her largest at the time, I was finishing the last corner of the pre-primed canvas, I ripped it, rendering seven hours of work seemingly wasted. I was mortified. After looking at the tear for a moment, she looked up and said “I can use that canvas for something smaller. Can you come back tomorrow to redo the big one?” No histrionics. No drama. Anybody who has worked in the art world’s various forms of blue collar labor can tell you that kind of treatment cannot always be expected. And she always paid me!! On time! And at a higher rate than most!! She dropped my name to her peers who needed studio help when I was dead broke. In fact, when she found out I was leaving LA for Chicago, she called her former mentor on my behalf. That simple gesture had a lot to do with my getting a teaching career in Chicago. In short, Rebecca was not only a dedicated painter, but she was also a good employer and a mentor.
Rebecca’s painting, then as now, has a balance of a laconic self-assurance and a meandering curiosity. While there are frameworks, there seems to be no a priori destination that precludes new directions within her visual language. The six large flat abstractions on view in this show are a testament to this. Two primary compositional formats are used throughout; a modernist grid or a large centralized circle that occupies the majority of the painting. Morris plays with these structures, using them individually but more often interweaving them in varying ways. A primary example of this is a large square canvas, with the circle form filled with droplets of bright red paint. Overlaying this field of saturated splotches is a thick gold grid. Perhaps it’s a restrained nod to one of Morris’ manifesto declarations, “When in doubt, spray paint it gold” 1. More likely it’s the interjection of dialectic opposites Morris uses to activate surface tension. In this instance, thin fluidity contrasts impasto regimentation.
Within these circle and grid motifs, Morris arranges various geometric, organic and what the artist calls, ‘lobster claw’ forms. These shapes feel like a collection of disparate puzzle pieces cobbled together to make a new, idiosyncratic whole. Sometimes the shapes fit seamlessly, creating an allover pattern field, while at other times the shapes sit uncomfortably next to each other. This produces a tensile disjuncture, with the shapes awkwardly shifting in illusionistic space. The show is replete with witty examples of the collision of opposites. Warm colors are placed next to cool ones. Saturated, high contrast patterns in geometric forms butt up against organic shapes filled with ethereal neutral tones. There’s very little repetition in how she treats these elements, which provides novel pictorial experiences in each canvas.
The sides of the painting reveal as much, if not more than the images themselves. The oil paint, thinned to the consistency of ink, flows erratically along the edge. Since Morris works horizontally, the paint bleeds down the sides. This, combined with dabs of paint used as parochial ‘color tests,’ reveals her methods. It also asserts the ‘thingness’ of the painting as an object in the room in an incredibly casual, yet effective, manner. To that end, a few of Morris’ paintings have color palettes and patterns that seem to allude to the long brick wall of the gallery space. By the artist’s assessment, her work is “resilient when installed in atypical or complicated environments”. Like Rebecca’s work, the gallery space has quirks that can’t be ignored. Morris’ studio has a large brick wall in it, so her response to the architectural peculiarity does, in this instance, factor into how the work responds to the environment, even though she doesn’t plan her paintings ‘site specifically’.
One day in 2005, while I was working, Rebecca came into the studio and sorta blurted out, “I want my paintings to look as good as the puddles on the sidewalk outside!” She never painted while I prepped canvases, but we talked a lot and had an easy rapport, so off the cuff remarks like this one were funny, but pretty uneventful. At the time, I knew she was serious, but I didn’t know what she meant, so I smirked and continued working. But it stuck with me. After seeing this show, it reminds me that it is not where you look that is important, it’s how you identify with what you see that matters. That is the genuine importance of a quixotic act. It wasn’t until I saw the pattern puddles in Rebecca’s show that I remembered this all-important lesson.
Rebecca Morris at Corbett vs. Dempsey runs until December 3, 2016.