Charlie Morris’s work, much like the artist who creates it, doesn’t talk loudly or wave its arms, but it would, in its quiet way, like you to notice it. Notice, and engage in a meaningful conversation, not some shallow chitchat about its pretty colors or that hilarious faux pas at last night’s reception. Admittedly it’s hard at first to pull your eyes away from its smooth complexion and confident posture, executed with a to-the-museum-born finesse. But the trick of Morris’s work is that a layer of superficial attraction draws you in before you realize what you’re looking at: photo negatives abstracted into an almost decorative painting, or detritus of the digital revolution rendered like toys in simple wood shapes and blunt oranges, yellows, grays, and blacks.
Since 9/11 and the wars conducted in its name, Morris’s work has become more overtly political. He’s made several scouting expeditions into the radically altered terrain of Bush II America, bringing with him older baggage — a critique of the culture of reproduction and the oblique nature of relationships — and returning with acid observations on technological obsolescence, our disconnect from the killing executed in our name, our collective moral isolation.
The result is an eye- and mind-grabbing combination of polemic and polish that achieved a tight focus when Morris was the featured artist in the Artists Looking at Art Series, a program of the McNay Contemporary Collectors Forum that invites artists to display their work alongside pieces from the museum’s collection and discuss the relationship at a public talk. Morris displayed two sculptures, a small, white pile of rubble and a miniature black hangman’s scaffolding, alongside three prints from Francisco Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra, 80 images created by the Spanish artist from the battlefields and aftermath of the early 19th-century Peninsular War, a bloody guerrilla conflict of the Napoleonic Wars.
“When I was younger I was always infatuated with his prints, especially the Disasters of War and the Caprichos, kind of like a social critic in a way,” says Morris. “And as I got older I started seeing connections between how in some ways he’s like a reporter, he’s a photographer in some ways, a war photographer, but doing it in etching and drawing and documenting the French invasion into Spain.”
Kind of like a reporter, but more like an artist. The preface to a 1967 edition of the etchings first produced by the Royal Academy of San Fernando refers to 64 of the prints as “reportorial,” and 16 as “fanciful” and “enigmatic.” The original 1863 edition preface is more blunt: “What wonder then, if a Spaniard, an Aragonese, and a man of Goya’s firm and independent character allowed himself to be drawn often toward exaggeration and
Other scholars have suggested that the title Goya supposedly gave the prints when he passed them on to his friend and collaborator Ceán Bermúdez is even more telling: “Fatal consequences of the bloody war in Spain with Bonaparte and other emphatic caprices in eighty-five prints. Invented, drawn and engraved by the original painter, Don Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.” Yet, in a catalogue for a 2004 exhibition titled I Saw It: The invented realities of Goya’s Disasters of War, Madeline Van Haaften-Schick argues that it’s nonetheless defeatist to dismiss the images — one of which is titled “I saw it” — because they may not be verbatim, “objective,” eyewitness accounts. The point, rather, is to resurrect the human costs of war smothered by fear, grief, and propaganda.
On these terms Morris is an artist and also a reporter in the revolutionary sense, using an almost brutally minimal visual arsenal to document the moral corrosion of the wars on Terror, Iraq, and Afghanistan — a thousands-year-old culture bombed into prehistory, public executions that violate our supposed values — and the media’s complicity in selling the conflicts. Morris’s small sculpture of a bombing aftermath, rendered disturbingly pristine in white, is distilled from a photograph, itself filtered through the internet. “I’m reconstructing, and making it more minimal you could say,” says Morris, “cleaning it up, in many ways like media can do ... media companies have political ways of looking at things, they don’t want to address certain things. Then I’m looking at, instead of looking at the real war, I’m looking at mediated images.”
Morris is hardly alone, internationally or locally, in turning art’s incisive tools on the current political situation, but his implied criticism of the objects that we rely on to record “truth” works better than many retreads of the subject because he recreates these mysterious, shiny, powerful-seeming devices in roughly hewn blocks of wood. “It shows its vulnerability as an isolated object. It shows its eventual antiquated quality,” says Morris. “It’s just going to fall apart, it’s going to be reduced eventually.”
Even more importantly, Morris’s work stands on its own formally, capable of wooing an audience regardless of ideological persuasion.
“It’s raw in the sense of its spareness, but detailed in its clarity,” says MCCF member and art patron Brad Parman of Morris’s sculptures. Parman has collected several of Morris’s pieces, from late-’90s paintings through his most-recent series, including a small white hangman’s noose. “A beautiful line I think is so incredible, and there’s a drawing quality to the pieces that I love,” he adds, echoing a comment from an audience member at Morris’s ALA talk, who observed that the black hangman’s platform — which Morris colored by painstakingly rubbing in charcoal — possesses a Shaker quality.
The idea was new to Morris, which, says ALA and MCCF co-founder Edmund Schenecker, is what makes ALA a brilliant program.
“It’s a nice introduction to `the artist’s` work,” says Schenecker, who borrowed the idea from Fort Worth’s Kimball Museum. “What it does is it fosters that relationship and dialogue between contemporary artists and a collecting institution ... It’s great for their CV.”
In Morris’s case, the CV payoff has been immediate and significant. Inspired by the program to explore the relationship between his and Goya’s work at greater depth, Morris applied to two residency programs in Spain — and was accepted to both. This summer he’ll spend two weeks at the multidisciplinary Centre d’Art Inatura, and a month at Can Serrat outside Barcelona, where he plans to study, among other things, the political history of Goya’s time. “I feel that the images Goya produced ... present a mirror reflection of my own country’s social and political hypocrisy,” he wrote in his application letter to Can Serrat.
“He’s obviously not applying for the residencies just to get a gig,” says Parman, who likens Morris’s work ethic to that of East Coast artist and recent Artpace resident Allison Smith, who engages overtime in dialogue about such projects as The Muster, a Civil War camp recreation in which hundreds of artists were asked “What are you fighting for?”
“`Morris` takes his work seriously,” adds Parman, “because he thinks the work is important.” •