Reflections: 'Palomar' by Michael Morris
Emerging in the late 1960s as a key figure in west coast painting and conceptual art, Michael Morris is a senior Canadian artist whose influence on subsequent generations of artists – particularly in Vancouver – attests to the continued relevance and importance of his work.
Born in 1942 in England and raised in British Columbia, Morris studied at the University of Victoria and then the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design) before undertaking graduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in England. In 1969 Morris founded Image Bank with the artist Vincent Trasov. A decentralized, mail-based correspondence network, Image Bank did much to cultivate the visual arts scene in Vancouver. At its simplest, as Morris describes it, “Image Bank is a network of people exchanging images,” but what Morris, Trasov and co-collaborator Gary Lee-Nova achieved was something far more significant. AA Bronson, founding member of the artists' group General Idea, understood their initiative as a means “to bypass the dead-end street of the impossibility of nothing – no gallery shows, no reviews, no art scene – and to begin a decentralized art scene based on long-distance exchange of images between artists."
Prior to these contributions to mail and conceptual art, however, Morris was largely known for his practice as a painter and printmaker. “If Toronto and Montreal painting often looks like tired New York and even more tired Paris,” curator and sociology professor Arnold Rockman said in his statement for the 1966 annual exhibition of work by B.C. artists – for which Morris took the painting prize – “Vancouver painting looks like clear-eyed and fresh-brewed London–Los Angeles with an occasional dash of time warp.” It was this close relationship to work in Los Angeles that is captured in much of Morris’s painting between the years 1966 and 1968.
From his early single-artist exhibitions in Vancouver, Morris showed paintings that incorporated industrial materials. His first Letter paintings apply a strategy of serial repetition of painted stripes that incorporate mirror and Plexiglas elements (in the case of New York Letter Morris replaced the painted stripes with photographs of charcoal drawings of stripes). Created at this time, Palomar – a refabrication of the work has been recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada – was first shown in the Younger Vancouver Sculptors exhibition at the UBC Fine Arts. It was conceived as a maquette for a large outdoor sculpture, an allusion to the San Diego observatory that lends its name. Following her visit to the artist's studio, the art critic Joan Lowndes wrote about Palomar in an article for the Vancouver newspaper The Province: "Morris has also branched into sculpture. His first piece, to be included in a group show of young Vancouver sculptors opening around October 15 at the UBC Gallery, is now complete in his studio. It consists of sheets of green Plexiglas with scalloped edges set on three separate black Plexiglas pedestals. The pedestals can be placed in seven different positions, each producing variants in the play of reflections. The influence of Los Angeles Six, of Glenn Lewis, and of his own Prisma environment created with Gary Lee-Nova, are all evident, but the sculpture, through its elegance and authority, is stamped 'Morris.'" The artist himself, reflecting on the work in Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry (2015), commented: "At that time, I was spending time in Los Angeles with the art critic Kurt von Meier and the artists in the Venice scene, as well as those who were working with Ken Tyler’s Gemini Studio, including Robert Rauschenberg … Palomar shares a nostalgic sense of the faded facades of Hollywood Deco architecture popular with many of my contemporaries in the LA scene."
The exhibition Los Angeles 6, held at the Vancouver Art Gallery in spring 1968, included Ed Kienholz and John McCracken, but it was the work of Larry Bell that is perhaps most relevant to Palomar. Bell had two sculptures in the exhibition made of glass. Morris was familiar with his art practice and, in an interview with this author in 2012, recalled in general that with Los Angeles “you knew the scene completely, and this still went on until the seventies.”
Glenn Lewis, his friend and later co-founder of The Western Front, was also producing work in Plexiglas at the time. In fact, for the UBC Gallery exhibition, he showed A Traveller’s Companion Series No. 1 – Fairy Ring (1968), one of his Plexiglas sculptural containers for ceramics. Lewis had studied at St. Ives and the work is an amalgam of techniques from the important English pottery studio placed inside acrylic containers reminiscent of Bell’s work. Recalling an exhibition of Lewis’s at the Douglas Gallery in The Spirit of the Sixties: A Witness, Lowndes wrote that he “lined its walls with mirrors …playfully phallic salt shakers and room fresheners of white porcelain were elevated on clear plexiglas pedestals surmounted by coloured Larry Bell boxes. Thus, through a cross-fire of reflections, his small, delicate sculptures confidently took possession of architectural space.”
If the phallic quality is explicit in Lewis’s work, when the three units of Morris’s Palomar are configured in a certain way, the work also reads as a phallus. If the three units are arranged in a row, the reference is far less telling. This variability lends the work an ambiguous nature: it can conceal or reveal its sexual connotations depending on the installation.
Following the Younger Vancouver Sculptors exhibition, Morris imaginatively repurposed Palomar as a mailbox at The Western Front, the artist-run centre for contemporary art established in 1973, where its condition slowly deteriorated over the years. In 2012 Morris, encouraged by curator Reid Shier, decided to remake the sculpture for Palomar: Michael Morris at the Presentation House Gallery (now Polygon), the satellite exhibition to his exhibition at Vancouver's Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery. He used the elements of the damaged work to fabricate new components (with Peregrine Plastics in Vancouver), initially hoping to produce them in varied colours, including blue and pink. The limited range of readymade acrylic colours however determined the three present variations.
Michael Morris's Rome Letter is currently on view in Gallery A113 at the National Gallery of Canada. For other works by Morris, see the Gallery's online collection. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, events and news, and to learn more about art in Canada.