Jennifer Morrison celebrates homecoming with spectacular paintings
Describing her works in Trajectory, at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban, Jennifer Morrison says modestly: "They are not quiet paintings."
The canvases are super large, well over a metre, and are mostly covered by brightly coloured abstract circles, pops, lines and dots and busy lines breaking off in all directions.
They are full of life, movement, gesture. It’s as if she has captured the aftermath of an explosion at a fireworks factory. Her paintings are wondrous and spectacular, as if she is tracing the beginning of the universe.
But what do they depict? Morrison can’t really say.
"I am not going to fabricate a meaning or message to please an audience," she asserts.
Morrison has set out to make art that captures experiences, feelings and phenomena beyond words or literal depictions. This is hard territory to tread as people want a clear message, although abstract art has been filtering back into contemporary art circles.
Abstraction works for Morrison as it best locates "the condition of being alive. A lot is a great mystery to ourselves. I like the idea of things that can’t be expressed with words or language and I think that is why I paint. There is a difference between what you can explain verbally and the stuff inside you," she says.
Her colourful art, which at first appears decorative, is designed to attract viewers with ambiguity rather than fill them with fear. That’s the point of art for her, to describe and draw viewers into places that are simultaneously awkward, strange, pleasing and unknowable. "We don’t understand everything about ourselves. It is a bit like that strange thing that happens when you look in the mirror and you go: ‘Is that me?’," she says.
This exhibition of bright, boldly coloured abstract works marks a brazen return for the Durban-born artist, who has been living in the UK for the past 25 years. Her art education at the Chelsea College of Arts and Central St Martins, which has proved fertile ground for London’s iconoclastic creative class, has probably shaped some of her artistic bolshiness, although she has spent the past 20 years or so gradually finding her feet as a painter. "There isn’t a fast track. You have to live through it and work through it," she says.
It has taken decades for Morrison to build the confidence to arrive at work that is everything art shouldn’t be or tries to be. Her art is pretty, though not vacantly so, which is traditionally the burden of the beautiful object. The way she layers her paintings, creating circles that appear to retreat into the distance, summons compositional depth. She prefers this to conceptual or narrative substance, which places the artist’s identity under the spotlight. She pushes up against all traditions, eschewing art’s virtuous function, as she describes it.
"I like the open-endedness [of abstract art]. So much art has the virtue attached to it, it has to prove its relevance or defend itself for being there. That is fine in some contexts. Why does art have to be this virtuous thing?" she asks.
Her art is centred on sight, seeing and experiencing with the freedom to do so without the usual political, social or art-centric baggage
She believes "virtuous" artworks conceived with social or political messages, or tracing personal narratives place viewers in a difficult position, where they either "get" the work or don’t, which leaves them feeling like a failure. Through her loud art, she hopes to draw viewers in, while offering them an exciting visual experience that is not a test of intellectual acumen.
Belying her rebellious streak is a traditional painter, who revels in painterly things; form, colour, brushstrokes and composition. "I have to make art that is true to myself. Many artists insert the meaning afterwards because they feel duty-bound to do it and there is a sort of dislocation and the work is lacking in the visual and there is a kind of impoverishment in what it is meant to be," she says.
Her primary concern is the appearance of the painting and the visual or physical effect it may generate. Her art is centred on sight, seeing and experiencing with the freedom to do so without the usual political, social or art-centric baggage.
But she makes visually driven works to attract viewers, freeing them from the usual burden attached to looking at art, but in a way her vocabulary is so art-specific she also risks appearing elitist.
"I appreciate that my art could be seen as [a] narrow individual pursuit. I am concerned with paint and painterly things, brushstrokes. That is what excites me."
To her credit, her art is hard to ignore. It alludes to a spectacle or the spectacular, which suggests it is populist art in a way, though it doesn’t look like any art you have encountered before. Certainly not in Durban.
Staging the show at the landmark KZNSA Gallery resolves a long-held ambition.
"When I was 18, I showed a work here in a group show and thought I had arrived!" In truth, Morrison has properly arrived as a painter in Durban now. She is returning to her hometown with a bang, injecting a jolt of her finely tuned creative spirit, which is given free rein on each canvas she uses.
"Barnet Newman said an artist’s first duty is to be free. That is the feeling I have tried to achieve as an artist. There are so many expectations from so many sources, what you should or should not be doing, from a personal point of view to the world outside you. We constrain ourselves so readily."
Morrison may be very articulate about her process, but her work maps a space beyond words. "I feel there is a space that words can’t reach. It takes a different part of our brain and being to comprehend and understand and I think that is beautiful and that should be trusted more. The less I think in the studio, the better the painting is. It is very much a bodily thing. My mind is there, but not in the forefront. It is like when you first learn to drive a car; when it becomes on a subconscious thing, you drive better."
Trajectory will show at the KZNSA Gallery, 166 Bulwer Rd, Durban until July 2.
Jennifer Morrison - ColourFlux Exhibition at Graham's Fine Art Gallery February 2: