Michael Morris' Book
KURT VON MEIER
Michael said the book is like the skins a snake has shed. There are two principal parts of the book: drawings and compositions made from photographic material. The drawings are combinations of India ink line work and transfer lettering, using Lettraset and Zip-tone processes; Michael calls them "book illustrations." The illustrations include photos of friends or lovers from the last five or six years, sometimes in multiple images, overlapped or altered; these are "snapshots." It is a book with pages that are unbound, independent, nonsequential. But the pages are not unrelated, for the book is a diary of vision-images and reflections. As such, there is no conceptual message directedat the reader and very little of the intent conventionally associated with books.
The drawings (or illustrations) work in an emphatic and rather nonintellectual visual realm. Each page in its stark but sensuous black and white provides a multiplicity of tripping-out points. The book's quality is a function of the kind of spaces its illustrations provide--the intensity and brilliance of the trips they inspire. The unwritten chapter of text each page illustrates repeatedly acceeds to the realized but imaginary pages of our own autobiographical novel. At least this happens if you trip out on the drawings. Then you may find that the illustrations from Michael Morris' book do lead you to new fanciful episodes in your own experiential autobiography. The experience of fancy and illusion is real too.
Michael Morris does not display much eagerness or ease in talking about his art. Perhaps this is because it contains such manifold references to Eros and Thanatos--not in terms of iconographical schemata, but as real and lived events. "It's a drag to come on very heavily talking about such things. All we can do is to provide our own sense of their meaning in the terms of our art."
Not all media are of equal appropriateness in documenting such intimate substance of experience. The illustrations here cover a period of about five years. Their subjects began to be worked out in oil paintings, and in a critical-historical sense they represent the extension and culmination of Michael Morris' paintings from late 1964 and early 1965. The original formal sources for both the illustrations and the paintings may be found in an extensive series of gouaches Morris executed in London. There he became fascinated by Indian miniature painting--translating the possibilities of such scale and even such a range of colors into his own pictorial vocabulary. That was when he was not interested in doing large paintings, although later that medium also came to be used. As the content of Morris' work came to be more closely related to diary notes, commentaries, documentation and more personal ideas or moods than seemed to be appropriate for the larger scale of painting, he began to work confidently on the drawings.
The subject matter of these book illustrations is heavily laden with references to both love and death. Where people are concerned--the people who have been friends of the years spanning the mid-1960s--the snapshot quality of a moment-fixed-in-time has been retained and heightened. The sense of "fixing" that moment is so much greater in Morris' exquisite and iconic pages than it is in the original casual snapshot source. Yet the way this part of the book works is very similar to our own photograph albums. As moments-past they may also be associated with ideas of death in a metaphorical way, without at all implying that the people themselves or Morris' relationship with them are dead in another sense. Even so, what is now is usually something other than what was then, when those snapshots were taken; the "snapshot" drawings are about that perhaps dead, but still relevant, then.
The events and people which form the subject matter of the book illustrations all occurred in Michael Morris' life in the period from 1963 to 1968. Here is another way the world began to change when the Beatles were just getting going in England. For Morris it was the sorting out of alternatives and options, "...realizing that my life was committed and that I was becoming a real person."
"I saw the whole book one afternoon in July (1968). From that moment it was just a matter of getting down to making it-assembling the photos, cutting out and transferring the Zip-tone, and working out the details of the particular statements. Basically it was completed in a period of four months."
Like any artist of genuine stature, Michael Morris not only projects himself but also his time. Artists make their time, at least as much as they are made by it. And more; they reveal to us new times and new selves, as seers and shamans. Ezra Pound: "Artists are the antennae of the race." (He meant of the people or of the culture, the word "'race" having gone through some changes since Pound wrote that). So this book is also about the 1960s and the 1970s--its nature is one of ambivalent vision, concerned with cusp, crux and crisis.
The decade of the 1960s is over this year. Its art is already beginning to look old-fashioned, its pretensions and involvements are becoming increasingly distant or irrelevant. If that time was popularized (packaged and peddled) as the "swinging sixties," it is clear that some swings have slowed to a standstill while others have flipped all the way around. We are headed for the Stoned Seventies.
Again it is the artists of the 1960s who have shown us the way. For example, the ominous balloon of the "originality problem" in art was pricked and fizzled by Andy Warhol through the ruse of silkscreen production of "anonymous" original paintings. Warhol: "I think it would be great if more people took up silk screens so that no-one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else's." The apparent anonymity in the work of Warhol or Morris does not contradict a profound personalism and a coherent sense of style that relates examples of their work one to the other. Even the very open and obviously eclectic disposition of such artists only enrichens that constellation of features and elements we call style. Warhol can do Campbell's soup cans or paintings based on news photos, but you can still spot it as "a Warhol." The bugaboo of some deep and necessary groove of simpleminded traits that characterize the style of an artist, equating integrity with consistency, has suffered attack and severe setback. Consider the salience of eclectic, dappled mentalities through the 1960s, from Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Norman O. Brown and Timothy Leary to Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and the Beatles. They are all, exploring and revealing mosaic patterns, new models for an alternate culture. Hence, they are not just "ahead of their time," they are making that time; and as the Chambers Brothers would say, time has come.
The 1960s was a drop-out time, an essential rejection of the old and irrelevant culture-myths. Now the pieces are beginning to coalesce in new relationships. It used to be what a person did; one was a practicing artist, Bob Dylan was a song-writer, Cassius Clay was a boxer. Now it is not so much what you do "for a living"; one lives, and the relevant question is who are you? The goal is not so much wealth and power as it is to find out who you are, and not to forget it. "Who is Bob Dylan?" and "Who is Muhammad Ali?" are so much richer questions.
This book illustrates such revelations and processes in terms of "Who is Michael Morris?" As such it is personal--even secret, private and hidden. "I am becoming much more like myself, like my astrological sign (the Earth sign, Taurus)." That supports his self-containment, his lack of willingness to talk about his subjects--or at least his reticence in laying these trips onto other people. "I have to have my place in order before I can work--without lots of people around, as much as I might like them or even love them." These are, sometimes dark spaces, when we remember that ultimately we are all alone, and that we have to work through so many things absolutely by ourselves. Such confrontations in the underground of the self are deeply involved with the idea of death--but as essentially, they imply regeneration. In the Tarot pack the thirteenth card (the card of Death or Time) also signifies renewal, a new life, change, starting with a clean slate, the transformation of the petty self into a selfless character and the perpetual flux of the whole of life. This Heraclitan aspect is also indicated by Michael Morris' ascendant Pisces-- perhaps, as the person he projects, more important than Taurus in relation to his art. Here is the flowing adaptation to other people's spaces and states of mind, the dipping and dappling eclecticism, and also the sense of shimmering distance, the gloss and slickness he finds so appealing in what the sixties got into. But there is death here, too. These are shiny shells: Busby Berkeley dance sequences, the 1930s revivals like theater marquee neon, Roy Lichtenstein's sculpture or Bonnie and Clyde (either the "original" or Rauschenberg's lithographs). Lots of glossy death.
There is also love--and love's reality in sex. The sex is often shimmering too, and sometimes it is dark and chthonic, as dark in its spaces as the spectre of death. "We are all getting more deeply into magic," Michael said. And even though I do not know for sure how much of an adept of the Tarot he is, I would like to quote here another brief passage about card XIII, about its interpretation for the Initiate: he sets out, guided by his remembrance of the search of Lady Isis, to gather together the scattered parts of his Lord's (Osiris') body. The details of his loving search cannot be entered into here; suffice it to say that each member, each part of the body discovered with the centre where it was found, has its significance concerning occult illumination.
"Those who have studied early phallic cults will know that the phallus, emblem of the nature worshippers, was the last and most important recovery and that this, which may now appear gross to polite society, was afterwards replaced by the emblem of the Tau Cross."
It would be nice if Michael Morris had known about that passage before setting out, in these works, to document and illustrate the process of reassembling the scattered and dead or dying fragments of a culture that is our symbolic world. It is even more interesting if he did not.
Kurt von Meier
Published in Artscanada (August, 1969)