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The most compelling aspect of Kathleen Morris's paintings is the way they plumb the emotional depths, inseparable from their sensual beauty. The convergence of spirituality and sensuality-sensualized spirituality and spiritualized sensuality - that is the mystery Morris's paintings evoke. They do so in part through their dense surfaces - heavily varnished, holding light in their enigmatic depths, in a manner worthy of the old masters, in part through their rendering of the human self-image. Indeed, her faces suggest simultaneously the heights of consciousness to which the human spirit can rise and the depths of suffering to which it can sink. Her fantasies - dream pictures -convey the strange mystery of being human, particularly a woman.

Many of her women seem on the verge of going mad, as though their own beauty and desirability had distracted them from the possibilities of identity, and the few men she depicts seem like lost souls. Yet the rich atmosphere of each work seems to place the figure on a higher plane of existence, redeeming it. Both an allegorical presence and an individual in a particular mood, it becomes transcendental by virtue of the atmospheric space in which it is located.

Kathleen Morris: Personae

by Robert C. Morgan

“Where is the beauty? Where I must will with all my will; where I want to love and perish that an image may not remain a mere image.” – Neitzsche

The recognition of beauty in works of art does not come directly. It reveals itself at various oblique angles. It takes time to absorb. Beauty requires a certain receptivity related to the conjugation of mind and body. In contrast to beauty, glamour comes at us directly. It hits us in the eye. Glamour is the instant effect that passes for “beauty” in today’s hypermediated world filled with narcissistic desire. Critics may try to make distinctions between the two – beauty and glamour – but the differences are usually subjective. In some ways, the subjective language of critics parallels the concerns of artists. The critic enters into a discourse that involves not only the effects of beauty, but also the artist’s intentions and the social context that surrounds those intentions. But like any area of cultural research that hovers between the alchemy and the media, the rules of criticism are never fixed. They are constantly being altered – transformed – in the presence of discovering new work. Significant art awakens us to ideas that lie outside the boundaries of preestablished criteria.

I was recently struck by a comment made by the painter Kathleen Morris. Although she has worked figuratively for many years, I asked about her approach in painting the new canvasses that represent heads of non-existent subjects. “I am always trying to paint Abstract Expressionism,” she said, “but they turn into heads very rapidly.” I pondered that statement for a moment and decided it was true. It was true! The surfaces of her paintings resemble the strokes, marks, and dribbles from the New York School. Yet Morris has produced something anathema to these painters by evolving her own style of idiosyncratic realism. I could only think of one antecedent in the United States who carried a distant relationship to Morris, and that would be Alfred Leslie – the painter who moved from being a second generation Abstract Expressionist in the fifties to a New Realist in the late sixties. I also reflected on the sometimes harrowing, yet mystical personages of the more recent Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum. Could it be the emergence of a new metaphysics in art? A transient strategy of being in a fragmented postmodern world? Is it inappropriate to consider that maybe the most radical procedures and innovations in art emerge from traditions that are already known – traditions that we assume to be the case, but have not been effectively realized?

Like many of the formidable abstract painters of the New York School, Kathleen Morris uses house-painter brushes and pastry cutters as a way to manipulate her pigments – to encrust her surfaces with an archaeology of diffuse painterly signs wherein resides the “deep structure” of her artistic language. These paintings are alive with synaptical charges of paint, with marks and gestures, and “accidental” encounters with form that reverberate from mind to body and from body to canvas. Within the process of her attenuated painterly strokes and her intense manipulation of the dense color field, Morris begins to discover her heads. They emerge less out of the void than out of an intensity of perception that gives full range to the multitude of expressions, ranging from erotic desire to hallucination, from agony to joyful abandonment. In discussing these paintings, Morris prefers the term “heads” as opposed to portraits or faces. She likes the sculptural affinity that implies three-dimensional space – or, if we are to accept Max Beckman’s term, the “fourth dimension” – that allows time into the painting’s symbolic narrative.

In the best sense, to be a painter in the twenty-first century is to engage in thought in a material way – a physical way – on a highly intuitive level. Morris is not depicting anyone she knows. For the most part, the heads simply emerge in the process of painting. The manner is less Abstract Expressionist than partially abstract and partially expressionist. There is nothing ostentatious, overdetermined, or exclusively rational in her style of representation. Instead, the work proceeds on the basis of a nearly unconscious desire. Her paintings oscillate between image and surface, eye and pigment – reminiscent, perhaps, of the psychic automatist approach of the early Surrealists.

Morris talks about the “primitive need” of her body to make gestures and the “metaphysical aspect of time and space” that she believes is inscribed in these works. At the same time, she wants “to get beyond the physical” which means to get beyond the literal aspect of representation in order to move, with Aristotle, into the realm of the metaphysical. She likes “big gestures” because they help to alleviate the burden of obsessive detail and thereby to offer a more generalized account of human existence through her vivid anthropomorphic imagination. Morris wants to give us a lingering, pulsating representation of the soul, purloined from the oblique reservoir of memory. This is the human condition that she so carefully observes in gathering the raw material for her work.

The notion that art is still capable of uttering feeling of any kind has become, in many instances, an alien attribute in recent art. This made apparent over and over again by the enormous glut of abject work repeatedly shown in the various Biennials of recent years. The paintings of Kathleen Morris function in a different way, on another level; and – one would hope – in a more optimistic manner. Her images are about feelings, not concepts. She is an inner-directed artist – a phrase I like to use when speaking of those who are less consumed by the rhetoric of the art world media and more focused on their own concerns. Morris delivers a message that is conscious of the signifying power of the image. Herein lies the tension that evokes beauty – the repository of signs broken to pieces by the sheer will of creative indulgence.



Eros and Introspection:
Kathleen Morris's Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

For me, the most compelling aspect of Kathleen Morris's paintings is the way they plumb the emotional depths, which is inseparable from their sensual beauty. The convergence of spirituality and sensuality-sensualized spirituality, spiritualized sensuality-that is the mystery Morris's paintings evoke. They do so in part through their surface-dense, heavily varnished, holding light in their enigmatic depths, in a manner worthy of the old masters-and in part through their rendering of the human self-image, as it has been called. Indeed, her faces suggest simultaneously the heights of consciousness to which the human spirit can rise and the depths of suffering to which it can sink. Her fantasies- dream pictures-convey the strangeness and horror of being human, particularly a woman. Many of her women seem on the verge of going mad, as though their own beauty and desirability had distracted them from the possibilities of identity, and the few men she depicts seem like lost souls. Yet the rich atmosphere of each work seems to place the figure on a higher plane of existence, redeeming it. Both an allegorical presence and an individual in a particular mood, it becomes transcendental by virtue of the atmospheric space in which it is located.

Odilon Redon has painted faces like this, if not with the same technique and physicality. I am suggesting that Morris is a Symbolist artist with the gift of "transcendental emotivity," as the critic G. Albert Aurier said. Like the Symbolists, Morris deals with the "formidable unknown," as Aurier called it. Hers is a "suggestive art," to use Redon's term, dealing with the "subjective world," and like all such art "it contains a treasure of dreams," at once "grandiose, delicate, subtle, perverse, seraphic." Indeed, Morris's handling is at once grandiose and delicate-not unlike that of Gustave Moreau, another Symbolist. Pierre Bonnard said that the most striking aspect of Redon's work is "the blending of two almost opposite features: a very plastic substance and a very mysterious expression." The same is true of Morris's work. Hers is an art that retreats from everyday reality into fantasy in order to discover what is deepest and most complex in subjective life-in order to experience the mystery of being human.

But it is woman's humanity that is particularly mysterious to Morris. Hers is an intensely introverted art, and her numerous pictures of women are all self-representations, in principle if not in pictorial fact. They convey her sense of herself- her sense of being a woman-if at an imaginative remove. It is woman's body and woman's feelings that are at issue in her art, and they are her body and her feelings. There has been much talk about the exploitive male gaze at the naked female body-the Guerrilla Girls once said that the only way a female artist could exhibit in a museum was as a naked odalisque painted by a male artist-but in Morris's work, we see a woman's gaze at the naked female body. Morris's bodies are as erotic-seductive-as any a male artist might paint. But-and I think this is crucial-she is not as emotionally passive as she often is in male renderings, where her body usually matters much more than her spirit.

Thus, woman suffers in Morris's paintings, for whatever reason. It seems to have something to do with the difficulty of relating to man. All the naked women in Morris's paintings are alluring, but their physical attractiveness is to no avail. Sexuality-implicitly the issue in many of the works-does not solve the relational problem. Better to be alone, Morris's pictures of female faces seem to suggest, but even being alone does not make their lives easier. For woman can suffer on her own-indeed, even more profoundly when she is alone. In a remarkable series of soul portraits, as it were-portraits of what William James called sick souls, that is, people disappointed in life, all the more so because they have discovered that there is evil in it-Morris presents female figures on the verge of going mad, as I have suggested. These imaginary portraits of emotionally disturbed women more than hold their own against Gericault's realistic portraits of the insane, the first to recognize that the faces of the mad often had unusual expressions, symptomatic of their condition. They are not as explicitly bizarre as Franz Xaver Messerschmidt's sculptural portraits of distorted expressions, which Ernst Kris brilliantly analyzed, but they have a similar if less conspicuous-a much more subtle--emotional intensity.

All of these imaginary portraits are exquisitely painted-lushly atmospheric- making the emotional isolation they depict all the more ironical and confusing. The contradiction between the glorious romantic handling and the convincing sense of psychic disturbance makes for a tense poignancy. Are these simply por- traits of troubled narcissism, reaching to the archaic depths of the female self? Yes, but also no. Indeed, the work seems to contrast sacred and profane love, much as Titian did in his painting with that title. Half the space is heavenly and radiant, the other half hellish and gloomy, suggesting the battle between good and evil. Does the paint itself-at once forceful and subtle-reflect the struggle? Are her works full of sacred symbols, rather than just poetic ones? Morris's women seem determined to attain a "state of grace," to refer to the title of one of her paintings. Are they saints in the making? Is Morris a religious painter-even a mystic painter? To some extent yes, as her handling suggests. One can describe it as erotically mystic or mystically erotic, as one chooses. Erotic language has been traditionally used todescribe mystical union in religious poetry. Do Morris's women long for higher mystical union with God, now that lower sexual union with man has caused them so much pain and despair? Let down by love of man, they want to rise up through love of God. Morris's women are clearly vulnerable and isolated- victims of their own disappointment in life, more particularly, with passion, which is unexpectedly not as uplifting as it is supposed to be. Indeed, it is violent and evil-downgrading-as some of the harsher narrative pictures suggest. Thus, the imaginary portraits, with their religious implications, show sublimated suffering-reach to the depths of suffering and represent it in a sublime way. At the same time, there is clearly religious depth of feeling- religious passion-in Morris's paintings. Suffering at its deepest has religious import, for it signals the tragedy that life invariably is.

In his poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" W. H. Auden remarked that the Old Masters were never wrong about suffering. Nor is Morris, who uses what might be called Old Masterism-she is one of the important artists in the revival of the Old Master approach to art and life that is slowly but surely occurring in contemporary art, now that vanguardism has lost its creative edge and become a self-perpetuating cliche-to suggest the complex meaning of suffering. The Old Masters often dressed suffering in religious myth-it was culturally available, as it is no longer-which itself deals with the transformation of suffering into selfhood, that is, the way suffering can strengthen the self after almost destroying it. Morris does the same. Her regression to tradition does not so much mechanically emulate it as show that it is still an existential resource.

 

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