Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry is a juicy slice of Vancouver art-making in the 1960s

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Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry
At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until April 8

Los Angeles Letter, a 1968 painting by Michael Morris, encourages you to move back and forth in front of it, catching furtive glimpses of yourself. Rendered in narrow vertical stripes of blue paint, from deepest cerulean to palest powder, its three panels are divided by bands of dark blue Plexiglas and inwardly slanting strips of mirror. The effect is a bit like op art meets the fun house: you look at the painting and the painting looks at you. Or, as Morris remarked in a recent public talk, it establishes a discourse between itself and the audience.

Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry is a juicy slice of Vancouver art-making in the 1960s. It stands on its own, of course, but also makes a smart companion exhibition to Lights Out!, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s survey of Canadian painting of the same era. The Belkin Gallery show, curated by Scott Watson and Michael Turner, consists of a series of thematically linked works that Morris created in the late 1960s: six large, dazzling, mixed-media paintings, a mirror sculpture, black-and-white photographs, posters, prints, and a selection of visual poems executed in ink on paper. Also included are some local, national, and international examples of conceptual and correspondence art and concrete poetry of the time, now part of the Belkin Gallery’s Morris/Trasov Archive.

Morris, who pursued graduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, England, in the mid 1960s and returned to Vancouver filled with wide-open ideas about art’s possibilities, has been an energetic force in the cultural life of our city. (Among other accomplishments, he was a cofounder of the Western Front in 1973, and its director for seven years.) He championed the kinds of interdisciplinary practice that aimed to break down art-world barriers in the ’60s and ’70s. He also found ways of folding such expression, including “happenings”, dance, photography, sculpture, conceptualism, and, yes, concrete poetry into the way he conceived his paintings.

The six triptychs titled Letters, executed between 1967 and 1969, speak to Morris’s interdisciplinary thinking: they were imagined not only as objects in themselves, expressing the pivotal role light plays in painting, but also as “props”, before which a dance performance might take place. They also responded to, and took their titles from, critical writing of the age. From a distance, they look like hard-edge paintings, but up close, they subvert that style’s industrial appearance. Their hand-applied lines of acrylic on canvas—the subtle wobbles and variations in Morris’s bands of colour—contribute a romantic aura to his work and set up an interesting contradiction to the slick, machine-made surfaces of the mirrors and Plexiglas.

Morris’s concrete poems reveal his desire to develop the relationship between one medium and another. Concrete poetry, sometimes known as shape poetry or visual poetry, seeks to convey its maker’s meaning through the visual arrangement of its typographical elements—its words, letters, numbers, or other symbols. During the 1950s and ’60s, under the influence of Fluxus, it crossed the disciplines of writing and visual arts. Still, Morris’s poems are not his strongest works (some of them resemble early modernist graphic design); more successful examples here are by the likes of Emmett Williams, Bernard Heidsieck, and Henri Chopin. Williams’s 13 variations, produced in an edition of 250, is a marvel. A kind of accordion book, part conceptual assignment, part concrete poem, it is composed of progressively more densely overlaid versions of the same six words, Gertrude Stein’s “when this you see remember me”. Despite the sophisticated premise of many of the works on view, the execution is mostly charmingly primitive by today’s digital standards. In the 1960s, artists and poets employed Letraset, manual typewriters, rubber stamps, and hand-drawn letters to achieve their compositional ends.

Also on view in the small gallery off the lobby are works by Canadian poets such as Judith Copithorne, bill bissett, and bpNichol, and a short film by Gordon Payne. Titled The Birth of God, it was inspired by Lionel Kearns’s 1965 poem of the same name, and it makes concrete poetry both palpable and audible, with its flickering, chanting, yelping, and groaning variations on the universe of possibilities that exists between 0 and 1.

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