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STEVE MORRISON: STUDIO ART

Steve Morrison is a unique artist and art teacher who lives in Georgia. His work http://www.stevemorrisonart.com/ has a fun, experimental spirit that harkens back to art school. I wanted to find out what inspires his work and whether I’m on the mark in my assessment of it. Was I? Read on and find out …

“… I think it becomes more valuable to help set a young artist on the right track so that after graduation, they are headed in the right direction. It could be decades before anyone arrives at the work they were born to do, but a good teacher can equip you for the journey …” 

MICHAEL: Hey Steve, Your work is very intriguing to me. First off, the work on your website has a very art schoolish kind of vibe that I like. It looks very handmade and experimental … both the paintings and your video work. Is this a vibe that you're going for?

STEVE: I was very recently in art school and I loved the crazy-making experience of being alone in a tiny studio for hours and hours, day after day. The studio environment deeply informs the work. It's this mad space of creativity and making, and things proliferate all over the place.

I'm definitely interested in the hand-made aesthetic. I want you to be able to feel the process and the heft of the hands that made it or even for it to feel almost like the studio itself made the art. So, some things have an awkward, rickety feel to them, as though they're on the verge on either completion or collapse. The videos use stop-motion animation and puppetry, which are perfect instances of this almost childlike approach, which is extremely hands-on.

MICHAEL: Yes, it’s cool.

STEVE: I'm really interested in playing in that space between an idea and its realization - letting the materials embody the idea or the image rather than represent it. Although nearly all of my work is in fact representational, I like to imagine that my materials are pretending to be something – playacting -rather than creating a convincing illusion of something. So rather than a painting of things, it's a gloppy pile of paint pretending to be things.

MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!

STEVE: And I do like to experiment a lot. I am a painter, and to me everything I'm doing is a painting or revolves around the discipline of painting in some way. But again, I like to let the materials do a lot of the talking and that leads me to working with window screening, flour, dirt, puppets, digital animation and all sorts of other things.

MICHAEL: In this digital age of sleek production, aren't your subjects and materials somewhat out of step? Shouldn't you be doing something sophisticated like drone photography or something “hot?”

STEVE: Yes, some of it may be a little regressive, but I tend to think of materials as materials, whether they be pigments, plaster, or pixels. I do have projects I want to attempt using augmented reality, but again, a project like that would still have a strong connection, for me, to the earth and the physical. I'm really interested in the perceptual screens we encounter between the world and ourselves. With the window screen paintings, I'm trying to make that usually-invisible screen into an object because I do think that's where our experience of the world takes place; the membrane/screen between what's outside and what's inside. The space between is where things really happen.

MICHAEL: Very interesting.

STEVE: Because we tend to live our lives mediated through these screens (I say as I type to you), I do find a sort of remedial value in materiality and haptic magic. Touching something and seeing what it is actually made of become increasingly important as humans continue to rapidly change the world and our relationship to it.

MICHAEL: So you’re not even trying to be trendy or hot.

STEVE: I try to engage with the contemporary world, but I don't mind if some of this is old-fashioned. A lot of the “hot” new things end up looking dated in a few years, but that's not to say there's no value in them. And some of these things have a sly way of resurfacing. The gap between what's current and what's ancient is not always as wide as we think. If current research is to be believed, several cave paintings were intended to “move” as they flickered in the firelight. And so the oldest art form humanity conceived of turns out to be the animated GIF. 

MICHAEL: I agree. You know, it's interesting because as the world continues to embrace all things digital, it's becoming increasingly easier for things to be fake and not what they appear to be, but real art is always concrete and real. Do you think people are aware of this? Do they even care?

STEVE: I think that's very true and the idea of what is real or fake becomes a fascinating problem. So much of our experience is mediated through the digital screen in different ways. I'm guilty of seeing more art through jpg files than I do in reality, try as I might to see art in person.

Art is now being reproduced as 3D prints that retain impasto textures, etc. So as reproductions become more and more accurate, where do we locate the difference between what is real or fake? Most people know art primarily through digital reproduction of some kind.

I think there is something very different between a simulation and an actual object, though. Painters obsess over surfaces, sheens, textures and the ways light passes through layers of paint. And I think those subtle, sensual, material realities can become avenues for re-connecting with the real. I hope that when people experience art in person, they are able to delight in these sensuous jungles of pigment and material and feel the art on a bodily level that doesn't happen in jpg form.

MICHAEL: How would you respond to someone who might look at your work and say, "My four-year-old could do that!"?

STEVE: Put me in touch and maybe we could collaborate on something!

MICHAEL: Ha! Ha! But seriously, people tend to either be afraid of art like the Old Masters or they think their kids can do what they see many contemporary abstract artists do.  What's going on here?

STEVE: Well, I think many contemporary artists simply have different goals than Old Master painters did. I've personally spent many years studying pigment and proportion and perspective, and I'm able to create work that is very naturalistic. To me, this is an ideal way to train and to hone your skills, and there are plenty of fantastic contemporary artists who work in the naturalistic tradition.

When it comes to making my own artwork, I use this knowledge, but in a different way. I want the materials to have their own life. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about not wanting to recreate a convincing illusion of something, but rather to help a pile of paint “pretend” to be something. It's still a pile of paint, but it's playing pretend. 

And for me, there is a lot of childlike pleasure in that, and something akin to innocence. William Blake writes about “reorganized innocence,” the innocence you come back to after learning through hard experience and which is informed by that experience. That's something I think about a lot. 

So while I don't see many children out there with the technical skill I've learned over time (except for wunderbabies like little Picasso or Durer), I do see the way children think and make as worth paying serious attention. And it does directly inspire my own work. I've even directly used drawings from when my daughter was a toddler in some of my animation.

MICHAEL: I talk with some people who think many art schools these days are favoring and teaching conceptualism and free expression over technical skill and craftsmanship.  What do you think about this?

STEVE: I do think that's true to a large degree and I think that craft and skill are becoming lost in the shuffle. I think there are long-term art-historical reasons for this happening and some of these are good reasons.

Art today is largely about communicating concepts through a wide range of media, old and new. Thinking through materials and images is something that must be taught, just like anything else. However, it does come at the cost of losing some of that rigorous time with charcoal and a model. As an art professor, I really do believe that a strong foundation in fundamentals like observational drawing is essential to being able to use your materials to say what you want to.

It can be discouraging for students, and there has to be some balance between a strictly skills-based approach and an openness to experimentation and concept. Students have things they want to say, but until that foundational language is learned, the art will suffer. I don't think that learning proportion, perspective and color theory inhibits young artists. I think it opens up possibilities for them to have a greater expressive range as they move throughout their artistic lives. 

MICHAEL: Where do you teach art?  You know Steve, it's tough out there for art school graduates in a world that doesn't really take contemporary art seriously.  Shouldn't these students be opting for pre-med or computer code writing?

STEVE: I teach at the University of West Georgia. And yes, it's a complicated situation. I think there are two competing myth-narratives that make things difficult. The first story is that you simply can't make a living as an artist. There are opportunities out there, and it's possible and lots of people do it. It's not easy, and it typically doesn't lead to a lot of wealth, but it's possible, and it's worth sticking at it.

The second myth is the myth of being “discovered,” whisked away to fame and glory. That rarely happens and even when it does, it doesn't mean things are easy or predictable after that.

So yes, pre-med and coding are safer bets for finding a job after school, although even these are not a sure bet these days. Part of going into the art life is realizing that you will likely be sacrificing some financial rewards and gaining some kind of ineffable spiritual rewards. I'm lucky to teach and do freelance illustration in addition to making my art, so I scrape by. But the benefits I receive from making the work are incalculable to me. My amazing high school art teacher told me years ago that you should only be an artist if you HAVE to, meaning that you have some deep internal need to do it. I agree with that.

MICHAEL: Can conceptualism and craftsmanship co-exist?

STEVE: This pendulum tends to go back and forth and I think we're in a moment now where art schools are very focused on concept and there is almost a denigration of craft. There is much time spent in art schools focused on words - learning to talk about what a young artist is doing and why. Students are obliged to verbally defend everything they do in the studio, and every mark made needs to have a theoretical justification. This doesn't leave a lot of space for craft or intuition, unless it's fetishized as part of some broader concept.

And so, I think a lot of artists leave school and spend years refining their craft and bringing it to a professional level. Professional craftsmanship (tight canvas, 90-degree angles, etc.) is essential in the gallery and museum world as well. But the craftsmanship of handling paint (for example) in a refined, controlled manner seems to go undervalued today. I think it's only the artists themselves (some of them) who really value the highly technical craft that goes into image-making. 

So the two can co-exist. What's changed is that craftsmanship is no longer a requirement. It's optional. That could well change as the pendulum continues to swing. For many artists who approach their work conceptually, execution is a means to an end.

MICHAEL: As a professor of art, do you feel that you're a role model?  I mean, do you feel that you should be a master of everything you teach?  How does it all work?

STEVE: Sure, I think a certain level of mastery is necessary for teaching. Mastery won't be achieved during school though, and so I think it becomes more valuable to help set a young artist on the right track so that after graduation, they are headed in the right direction. It could be decades before anyone arrives at the work they were born to do, but a good teacher can equip you for the journey. 

So I think teaching craftsmanship is necessary, because these are some (not all) of the tools to take with you on the long road ahead.

In my current role, I teach lecture courses mostly for non-art-majors. So I see myself more as their example of what a contemporary artist is - the varieties of work I perform, how I live, what I read, what I'm looking at and how I look at it, etc … more of an example by means of illustration than by means of emulation. I don't expect my pre-med or business students to want to emulate me or look up to me as a role model. I hope not.

MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world and art market and how they function? Does it all make sense to you?

STEVE: I think it's a fascinating carnival. I can't claim too much special understanding about how it all works. I'm still early in my career and acting largely outside of the art market, for better and worse. I mostly focus on just trying to make the work, day by day - and put it in front of people's eyes from time to time. That's the part that makes sense to me.

MICHAEL: Yes, putting art in front of people's eyes remains the trick. I keep telling artists that I think more artist cooperatives like shows, pop-up galleries and working together ... is really one major answer. What do you think?

STEVE: Absolutely. It's a community and it doesn't work without that. Supporting each other as artists is huge. Art school affords you an incredible community that you have to work to maintain post-graduation.

Things can get very myopic in the studio and it's imperative to do things that keep you grounded. And I think early in a career, it's essential to get your work out as often as you possibly can. I look at calls for entry all the time, and apply to the things I can afford (submission fees are the artist's death by a thousand cuts).

Group shows, one-night pop-ups, community events, all these opportunities tend to lead to new things. For me, art is part of a conversation with my peers. My peers include artists and curators I know personally, but also artists whose work I communicate with across space and time, from all over the world and dating back to cave art. My dream is to make things that speak backwards to cave art and forward to whatever the future holds, while remaining rooted in the present. It's a continuous conversation made through things. And getting your work in front of people is a big part of how that dialogue takes place.

MICHAEL: Are there differences in your painting and sculptural processes?  What causes you to work on sculptural work today and painting tomorrow, for example?

STEVE: Everything I make in the studio revolves around painting. The paintings themselves I often consider as objects, and I often mold the paint itself into forms. Many of my paintings are primarily made of paint. The substrate I use is layers of paint itself, rather than a canvas or panel.

I like to emphasize the materiality of the paint itself even as the paint masquerades as something else. And most of my sculptures are made of paint. I think of them as illusory objects or characters who have accidentally broken out of the picture frame and are now wandering wide-eyed through three-dimensional space.

Even my animation process often takes the form of recreating details or moments from a painting and bringing animated life to them. So I think there are more similarities than differences, in the sense that I see these forms interacting and playing together and even giving birth to one another. It's hard for me to imagine them in isolation. And I never work on them in isolation from one another.

On any given day, I like to be able to have something fresh to work on. My studio time usually comes early in the morning or on weekends. I like having a lot of different things happening in the studio at once and feeding off of one another. If I have two paintings, an animation, and a couple of sculptures going on simultaneously, I can always “play hooky” from one project to work on another. It keeps me excited and gives me a little charge of mischievousness while still producing lots of work.

MICHAEL: Do we really need more artworks in the world? Most people on earth aren't buying art. Many people don't even appreciate art, so what's the point?

STEVE: This is a question I think about a lot. I have many friends who work in non-profits, NGOs, social work, and public health. They seem to be making a great impact for good in the world. I rarely feel that art does much good, and when it tries to, it often falls flat. 

As you say, art really only affects a small segment of humanity. But to those to whom it matters, it matters a lot. For myself, art holds everything together. Looking deeply at the art others have created over the millennia brings immeasurable meaning, depth and richness to my own experience of the world. This holds true for great literature and music, as well. My hope is that if it all matters so much to me, there must be others like me. And if my own work could possibly bring that richness to someone else in the world, that would be very moving. That hope keeps me making.

But who knows whether that will happen? I probably won't be in the room if it does, and it's such an internal process for the viewer that I likely wouldn't know it was happening if I were there. So I don't think there's a way to know irrefutably that any of this matters. And so, a certain level of self-delusion becomes crucial to continuing the work. I work as though I'm communicating with people from centuries ago and centuries into the future, which could just be narcissistic nonsense. But it's a fecund, generative nonsense that keeps me pressing on. Illusions can be extremely valuable.

MICHAEL: Finally Steve, Long after you're gone and your work remains, what do you want people to see in the work? What's the message that you want to leave behind?

STEVE: I think what would be seen is the record of a perplexed fellow-traveler through mortality. When I look at my favorite art of the past and present, I feel a kinship with the humanity of these artists - that we're part of the same tribe and of something larger than ourselves. I would hope to extend that sense of kinship.

Behind the humor and the absurdity of much of my work, I hope there’s also some measure of beauty and honesty. I want the work to push people to experience their own human predicament more acutely, but also to provide some space for moving forward and for empathy. Walking together.

MICHAEL: Thanks Steve. Very cool chat.

STEVE: Thanks, Michael. It was great to talk with you.

Check out Steve at http://www.stevemorrisonart.com/.  



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