Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Shaun Morris: "Black Highway' At Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery

Shaun Morris, 'Dropped', Oil On Canvas, 2013

It’s been a pretty good start to the year as far as exhibition visits go.  Having already zoomed over to Birmingham for the survey of Photorealism at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, I found myself heading west again the other day; this time for the Private View of Shaun Morris’ ‘Black Highway’ show at Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery.

The exhibition marks the culmination of two years of Arts Council funded work on Shaun’s part.  The paintings and drawings on display represent his first concerted attempt to explore landscape subjects and, specifically, the liminal ‘Edgeland’ terrain beneath the M5 and M6 Motorways, near the Towns of Oldbury and West Bromwich, to the northwest of Birmingham.  Shaun grew up here, in what is still known as The Black Country, and his atmospheric, nocturnal views of this man-made environment are informed both by personal memory and his reflections on a the changes befalling a region once famous as a cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

As in much of Britain, manufacturing industry has been allowed to dwindle away in the Black Country Towns over recent decades, resulting in a loss of employment opportunities and of local pride and identity; something that Shaun has witnessed himself through the prism of his own family’s circumstances.  If Shaun’s paintings aren’t necessarily angry in any overt manner, they do evoke a variety of melancholy, and perhaps, disappointment with the alienation of Twenty First Century life - speeding heedlessly overhead to somewhere (or nowhere), else.  It’s no accident that he borrows titles heavily from his beloved Bruce Springsteen, a songwriter whose music provides the soundtrack to the show, and draws on the similar ‘blue-collar’ experience of his own New Jersey homeland.

I’ve already written at some length about the earlier paintings that featured in Shaun’s ‘Stolen Car’ exhibition last year, so now I’ll concentrate on my thoughts surrounding the newer pieces and the changes that have occurred as the overall series evolved.

  • The most obvious development in the later paintings, subject-wise, is the inclusion of water.  Whereas earlier canvases focused on the paddocks, pylons and minor roads beneath the motorways, now we see a canal, sliding in and out of the shadows like a reflecting serpent.

Shaun Morris, 'The Serpent', Pastel On Paper, 2013

  • It always feels eerily still, down here in Morris-land.  Not a breath of wind disturbs mirror of the canal’s surface.  Shaun is quick to exploit the compositional potential of doubling and reversing that this affords.  These paintings are reflective in two ways and, as a result, move towards an emphasis on abstract shape beyond mere straightforward description.

Shaun Morris, 'Nighttime', Oil On Canvas, 2013

  • Somehow, this moves the paintings beyond the sense of a haunted personal narrative that was such a feature of ‘Stolen Car’.  Under much of the ‘Black Highway’, the sense of complete absorption into a particular environment comes before any sense the events or memories that might unfold within it.

Shaun Morris, 'Weightless', Oil On Canvas, 2011

  • Could this erosion of descriptive detail, and consequent blurring of specific identity, echo the transformations that have overtaken this whole region?  Does this reduction of a subject towards formal concerns, recall the plight of a community once rooted in proud tradition but now shifted towards increasing disconnectedness and anonymity? 

Shaun Morris, 'The Gaze', Oil On Canvas, 2013

  • The Artist is adept at capturing the artificially tinted nocturnal skies above man-made environments and the sodium and halogen illumination that saturates them.  Much of ‘Stolen Car’ was immersed in sickly amber and orange, which still remains, but several of the newer paintings also undergo spectral shifts, through pinks and violets and into sombre blues.  'The Gaze' takes its identity from the floodlit green of an industrial building’s cladding, (a new keynote motif within the series), whilst ‘Drift’ blazes with coral pink.

Shaun Morris, 'Drift', Oil On Canvas, 2013-14

  • As ever, beyond the light, lies profound shadow, often simplifying forms into overpowering silhouettes.  ‘Black Highway’ is a perfect description as well as an evocative title.  This flattening of form, and the heightening of tonal contrasts around edges, may be one reason why several paintings now tend towards a variety of soft proto-Cubism and the ordering of the image into cutout shapes.

Shaun Morris, 'Beneath The Surface', Oil On Canvas, 2013

  • There’s another sensibility at work here though too.  ‘Beneath The Surface’ and ‘Curtain’, demonstrate a far more nuanced approach to the abstraction of parallel columns.  We recognize these as concrete road supports but, in imagination, they also become the trunks of a forest.  In ‘Beneath The Surface’ a serpentine branch meanders amongst the reflected verticals, reinforcing the illusion, whilst it’s possible to double take the upper strip of canal-bank foliage as the lower edge of a forest canopy.  The customary orange and violet are shifted down tonally to evoke an atmosphere of arboreal as well as aquatic gloom. 

Shaun Morris, 'Curtain', Oil On Canvas, 2013

  • The most distilled, (and my favourite), painting in this show is ‘Curtain’.  Across a panoramic format, are distributed a number of irregular vertical bands, loosely handled and brushy of contour.  With a subdued, mostly tonal, palette of violet, green, blues and greys amongst the prevailing black, it totally blurs the distinction between columns and trees and between positive and negative spaces also.  Indeed, this ambiguous dialogue between light and dark, and between solidity and space, is the key pictorial theme within all of this work. 

Shaun Morris, 'Memories' (L), Oil On Canvas, 2011, (From 'Stolen Car' Exhibition)

  • Just like the earlier 'Memories', where concrete structure became subsumed in a screen of broken foliage, ‘Curtain’ exists at the very edges of recognizable depiction.  I don’t know if this is a new way forward for Shaun, or just one element of his vocabulary, but it’s impressive to see him travel the road between representation and near-abstraction within the same few motifs.

Shaun Morris, (Clockwise From Top L), 'The Black Country', Factory', The Cut',
'Under Stars',
All Oil On Canvas, All 2013

  • Much of all this is, not surprisingly, rehearsed via smaller, paper-based works in pastel and oil.  On the larger scale, Shaun’s energetic brushwork often skates across areas of the canvas at great speed, and, just occasionally, leaves me craving a little more structural rigour to match his monumental subject matter, (I speak as one whose own paint handling too easily tends towards the pedestrian or overly deliberate).  The smaller pieces help to rectify this, supplying, as they do, more concentrated versions of similar imagery.  On occasions, I am reminded of Whistler’s famous ‘Nocturne: Blue & Gold – Old Battersea Bridge’.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'Nocturne: Blue & Gold -
Old Battersea Bridge',
 Oil On Canvas,  1872-75

I don’t know if ‘Black Highway’ marks the final culmination of a particular phase in Shaun’s painting or what might lie ahead for him.  Whether or not there are more motorway visions to come, the existing paintings constitute an impressive body of work and I hope they justify at least some of his aspirations when he embarked upon them.  It will be interesting to see how the learning they constitute will carry into future paintings, regardless of subject matter. 

It was great to see so many of the paintings hanging together in Nuneaton, and also, to catch up with Shaun himself and his fellow Indigo Octagon artists, Chris Cowdrill and Andrew Smith.  I was also interested to chat to Sian Stammers, another Midlands artist with Edgeland concerns and the organiser of the ‘By The Way’ exhibition that I wrote about last year.

Design: Chris Cowdrill

'Black Highway' continues at: White Gallery, Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery, Riversley Park, Coton Road, Nuneaton, until 2 March, 2014.

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