Monday, 8 February 2016

Shaun Morris: 'The Lie Of The Land' At Artrix, Bromsgrove

Shaun Morris, 'Cargo', Oil On Canvas, 2015

After a couple of missed opportunities, I finally got around to viewing Shaun Morris’ recent paintings, by visiting his ‘The Lie Of The Land’ exhibition at Bromsgrove’s Artrix Live Venue, the other weekend.  Unfortunately, I can’t recommend you also beat a path to Bromsgrove, (much as I enjoyed the trip), as the show has now closed.  However, I believe Shaun is planning another exhibition in Wolverhampton, soon, and I’ll attempt to post some advance notice of that one as and when I know the details.  Anyway, I’ve wanted to catch up with these paintings for a while, - having looked at them on screens for several months already.  As ever, I was happy to find there was far more to them than meets the eye in pixelated form.  It’s just yet another reminder (were one needed) that, were paintings are concerned, the real power lies within the thing itself.

Artrix, Bromsgrove, January 2016

Because this first-hand encounter is still fairly fresh in my mind, and even though you won't be able to check whether or not I’m talking nonsense, for a few weeks at least, - it still seems worth taking the time to reflect on the work in a little more depth here.  What follows are a series of my thoughts, (in no particular order), based on the hasty notes I 
scribbled on the day…

Shaun Morris, 'The Lie Of The Land', Artrix, Bromsgrove, January 2016

  • As already mentioned, Shaun’s previous engagement with nocturnal views of the often-overlooked zones beneath the road infrastructure of the West Midlands has now tightened in on the heavy goods vehicles that regularly come to rest there.  The setting is still a distinctly subterranean dimension of deep shadow and artificial illumination, - a place of both melancholy and some foreboding, in fact.  However, whereas before, we found ourselves wandering into a kind of abandoned labyrinthine lair, now we must confront its slumbering denizens. 

  • In the (chiascuro) light of this, it’s interesting how Shaun’s focus-shift from both the expansive and sub/immersive aspects of the environment, - to what are essentially portraits of inanimate objects found within it, sets up a noticable alteration in both pictorial concerns and emotional responses evoked.

Shaun Morris, 'The Lie Of The Land', Artrix, Bromsgrove, January 2016

  • It’s difficult not to imagine the dreams of the drivers slumbering in many of those darkened cabs, or even to project certain anthropomorphic or animalistic traits onto the machinery itself.  I suppose it’s also inevitable that we are drawn to certain, more stereotypical views of the haulage game, - be it via a freewheeling romance-of-the-road, or the rather more sinister motivations sometimes suspected of truck drivers.

  • In more painterly terms, these subjects seem to bring out the best in Shaun’s handling of oil paint.  On odd occasions in the past, I’ve had a sense that his enviably energetic and un-laboured brushwork could, (excuse the pun), fly over the monumental, concrete structures and elevated carriageways he sought to describe, with insufficient weight or gravity to completely capture their solid geometry.  There is, of course, always a fine line between painterly freedom and dead-handed stolidity, but here, the best aspects of Shaun’s deft brushwork feel well harnessed within the mechanical and coach-built geometries of his chosen subjects.  It’s as though down-scaling and intensifying things subject-wise, has disciplined his brush just enough, whilst still allowing scope for some impressively economic and bravura sleights of hand.

Shaun Morris, 'The Machine', Oil On Canvas, 2015

  • A good example of this would be the painting ‘Cargo’, - a simple enough profile of a flat-bed truck, but one in which the geometry of the lorry’s structure, and especially the volumes of the recycling bins on board, are described with really effective economy.  Another would be ‘The Machine’, which depicts a massive piece of laid-up road grading equipment.  It’s impossible not to associate its shape with some immense prehistoric, Sauropod, or to be struck by the dynamic compositional device of its truncated zig-zig ‘neck’.  Equally impressive though, is the way Shaun deals with the mechanical complexity of the machine’s supporting caterpillar tracks.  With a few controlled flicks of the brush, he delineates a subject that might have easily become bogged down in over-descriptive detail, but never loses the sense that what we are really looking at are huge lumps of steel and hydraulics.

  • Another major departure from recently preceding work is the re-expansion of Shaun’s palette.  His Stolen Car’ and ‘Black Highway’ cycles were largely saturated with the sickly yellows, violets and oranges of contemporary street lighting, - something that capitalised on a queasy, alien ambiance very familiar to most urbanites and inter-city travellers.  It also lent the exhibitions devoted to them a certain visual unity [1.].  These truck paintings revel in a much wider range of colours however, - demonstrating that such artificial illumination can be evoked in a variety of daring and expressive chromatic juxtapositions.  I suspect it also has much to do with the relationship between these light conditions and photography.

Shaun Morris, 'The Yard 2', Oil On Canvas, 2015

  • This is sometimes revealed in each truck’s surroundings as much as in the individual subjects themselves.  ‘The Yard 2’ situates a relatively anonymous, white tractor unit on a surface of jangling acid green and cerise pink, - all chopped into wedges by a jagged network of shadows; then backs it with the reddish glow of distant fencing.  ‘Cargo’, pulls off a similar trick, (this modestly-sized painting actually pulls a lot of weight, in several respects), by pitching an equally daring, plane of saturated blue and red, with the glowing yellows of the truck’s load [2.].

Shaun Morris, 'Under The Bridge', Oil On Canvas, 2015

  • Shaun’s still not averse to giving a painting an overall colour key on occasion, - it’s just that the range is now wider.  ‘Under The Bridge’ features two parked cabs, overlapping in a kind of ‘push-me-pull-you’, Janus-like configuration.  The eerie turquoise light that soaks everything accentuates the strangeness of this motif, evoking the alienated melancholy of ‘ships that pass in the night’, in my mind. 

Shaun Morris, 'The Depot 2', Oil On Canvas, 2014

  • However, the show’s most audacious explosion of colour comes in ‘The Depot 2’.  Here, dispensing with the dense blocks of shadow that characterise every other piece, Shaun suffuses his entire canvas in the radiance of a startling, deep pink sky, and the brilliant yellows of the illuminated ground.  Cutting through all this is the bright orange vertical of a bridge support, providing an important compositional device, and totally dominating the lone truck, parked beneath it.  The latter is reduced to little more than an anonymous, red shape, and feels totally subsumed within its irradiated environment.  Much of this is then reflected in the foreground canal surface, where Shaun takes all that eye-popping colour down a notch or two, through a range of sumptuous crimsons and purples.  It takes some skill to pull off something like that without resorting to cloying prettiness, or mere self-justifying spectacle.  Actually, it’s the kind of thing Peter Doig might get away with, and you could write a short thesis on the effective use of a close-toned, analogous colour range from this one painting alone.

Shaun Morris, (L-R): 'The Beast', 'King Of The Road', 'Auto Portrait',
All Oil On Canvas, 2015

  • For all this emphasis on vivid hue, it’s also worth noting those situations in which Shaun knocks-back and unifies his colours behind thin veils of fluid paint.  This is particulary notable in 'The Yard' and ‘Under The Bridge’, where dribbles of grubby turps not only modulate chromatic impact, but also supply a variety of expressive filter.  The idea of road grime is, of course, completely appropriate to his subject.  One painting is even entitled ‘Dirty From The Rain’.

Shaun Morris, (L-R): 'The Road', 'The Tyres Rushing By In The Rain',
'Time On The Tachometer', All Oil On Canvas, 2015

  • A facility with the atmospheric potential of a meagre paint application can also be seen in several of the delightful, small studies that accompany the larger canvases.  These are generally handled with admirable economy, and yet achieve a surprising emotional heft, not least through their intimate scale.  ‘The Road', ‘The Tyres Rushing By In The Rain’ and ‘Time On The Tachometer’ work particularly well, with their subjects emerging like lonely apparitions from an almost sub-aquatic, greenish light.  It's all achieved with a few insubstantial wipes of transparent paint across a clearly visible canvas weave.

Shaun Morris, 'The Beast', Oil On Canvas, 2015

  • I now realise to what extent my own response to these paintings is shaped by their investment, of what are, on the surface, depictions of workaday subjects, with a powerful range of expressive qualities.  These really do operate as portraits, - with each seeming to encapsulate a particular set of characteristics or ‘personality’ traits.  Thus, the truly intimidating ‘Night Trucking’ looms from the darkness in extreme perspective, with a genuine air of challenge.  It’s also a miracle of how to delineate an immense presence with a minimum of visual information, and again, speaks eloquently of the relationship between painting and photography.  Elsewhere, the study ‘The Beast’ juxtaposes a dark truck, against a brilliant yellow façade, as it enters from the right like a sinister intruder.  This piece also represents an impactful inversion of the customary figure-ground relationship.

Shaun Morris, 'Night Trucking', Oil On Canvas, 2015

  • Another study, ‘The Wait’ triggers a completely different personal response in me.  It’s a charming little piece that integrates a foreground truck cab with the interlocking shapes of its background very pleasingly.  There’s a kind of modest innocence about this image, which reminds me slightly of the Ladybird or ‘Observer’s’ series book illustrations of my childhood.  It was then that my fascination first emerged, with the huge lorries my father would identify during car journeys.   It was a world of simple, boyish wonder at big machines, long before I’d ever heard of product miles, carbon footprints or harmful particulates.  It may also explain why, however hokey it might sound, - I have absolutely no problem with the idea of simply painting pictures of lorries.

Shaun Morris, 'The Wait', Oil On Canvas, 2015

I first met Shaun Morris in 2012, when he invited me to participate in a group show he was helping to organize in Birmingham.  Over the intervening years he has amassed what amounts to a significant vision of his own West Midlands homeland.  It is sharply focused, in terms of its subject matter and geographical locus, (the majority of these paintings still originating from a few choice locations beneath the M5 at West Bromwich, I believe), but increasingly varied in terms of its expressive implications.  It’s also one largely devoid of overt conceptualism, but full of powerful resonances, - communicated through the direct, and enduring means of good old oil paint. 

Originally, we were invited to join him, in somewhat detached reflection, beneath one of the main arteries that are so synonymous with the region.  Now we find that the dynamic world of commerce and movement passing above our heads has its own downtimes and moments of reflection too.  Wandering amongst its representatives at rest, it seems they carry, not only physical cargoes, - but a range of potential associations and meanings too.

Shaun Morris, (L-R): 'Study For The Machine', Unknown, 'The Wait'.  All Oil On Canvas, 2015

I, for one, would love to see a mixed exhibition of the motorway pieces and these truck paintings hung together.  However, I appreciate the implied scale of such a show could be difficult to negotiate, and Shaun can hardly be accused of slacking in terms of trying to get his work out there, even as things stand.  Whatever the future holds, I hope he’ll continue to shame me, both with the sheer quantity and integrity of the work he produces, and in the number of opportunities he offers to view it.

[1.]:  I wouldn’t want to over-stress this point, - there was always room for the occasional green or bluish canvas; but these tended to be the exception that proved the rule.

[2.]:  That red/blue/yellow primary triad can be the bluntest of tools, but Shaun manages to create something that glows rather than glares, by carefully scattering limited accents of primary red amongst roughly equal proportions of yellow and blue, then allowing them all to sing out of the darkness. 

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