Alex Morrison: Phantoms of a Utopian Will
At the Burnaby Art Gallery until November 8. At Simon Fraser University Gallery until December 11
Whether through drawing, painting, sculpture, video, or photography, Alex Morrison has created a compelling body of work that employs architectural forms and references as a way of investigating a number of social issues and ideas.
Born in England, raised in Victoria, and based for a number of years in Vancouver, Morrison currently lives and works in Brussels, Belgium. His new, two-part exhibition, at the Burnaby Art Gallery and the Simon Fraser University Gallery, bears the elaborate subtitle Phantoms of a Utopian Will/Like Most Follies, More Than a Joke and More Than a Whim.
The tandem shows are in many ways site-specific while also making broader allusions to the (failed) utopian aspirations of two distinct architecture and design movements. Morrison alerts us to the uses we make of our built environment and the ways such uses may shift over time, absorbing, obscuring, or undermining their planners’ original intentions. His work also suggests that, as the decades pass, revolutionary ideas and counterculture impulses are inevitably undermined or diluted by absorption into the mainstream.
At each venue, Morrison has created new works. At the BAG, he takes his cues from the 1911 Arts and Crafts revival mansion in which that institution has been based for nearly five decades, with a chandelier, a sconce, calligraphy, and a large inkjet print, as well as a series of glazed stoneware plates created in collaboration with ceramicist Maggie Boyd. At SFU, he keys his creativity to the brutalist, mid ’60s modernism of its architecture, producing big, colourful banners, small sculptures, and, again, ceramic plates.
Also on view in both galleries are examples of Morrison’s two- and three-dimensional works from 2002 forward; historically referenced plynths and display tables; and selections from each institution’s permanent collection. The effect is one of visual complexity, intellectual provocation—and occasional puzzlement.
The Arts and Crafts revival originated in England in the latter half of the 19th century and was also highly influential in the United States (where it was known as the Mission style). A reaction against industrialization—against both its dehumanizing working conditions and the shoddy products of its manufacture—the movement advocated a return to fine craftsmanship in people’s homes. Social and aesthetic aspects of the movement were seen to be inextricably intertwined: the belief was that the satisfaction created for both maker and user would enhance the lives of all. Ultimately, however, design “of the people for the people” failed: high-quality craftsmanship became too costly for any but the wealthy to afford.
Indeed, the wealthy Ceperley family paid for the expensive design, construction, and decoration of the mansion where the BAG is now located. Highlights include carved-oak mantelpieces, stained-glass windows, and glass and ceramic hearth tiles. Not that these features have always been honoured: after passing out of family hands, the place was occupied by Benedictine monks, a religious cult known as the Temple of the More Abundant Life, and a hard-partying SFU fraternity reputed to have trashed the place before the City of Burnaby stepped in.
Morrison’s references to the fraternity include a wall-mounted sculpture made of wood and wrought iron, painted a steely grey and featuring representations of upside-down beer bottles. A large inkjet print, Raised on Mouldy Bread, juxtaposes images of beer bottles and cans, upright and tipped over, with those of a Mission-style lamp, upright and tipped over.
Most of the references, however, are to the Arts and Crafts revival as seen in the Ceperley house, with sculptural allusions as well to leading British and American designers of the age. Permanently installed in the “Fireside Room” is Morrison’s aluminum and Plexiglas chandelier, A Fine Contamination. Looking more streamlined Art Deco than nature-based Art Nouveau (as seen in the oak leaves carved into the mantelpiece), this work perhaps speaks to an idealizing aspiration to conflate the past, present, and future. Perhaps.
An exhibition catalogue is due out in late October. Presently, however, visitors have few clues to Morrison’s complex ideas and historical references. For instance, a black mural resembling an Art Nouveau cluster of evil toadstools, also located in the Fireside Room, must allude to a specific source, but which? (Its title, Something Nasty in the Woodshed, is a quote from Stella Gibbons’s satirical 1932 novel, Cold Comfort Farm—but what do we make of that?) Morrison’s many small, visually amusing sculptures, collectively and playfully titled Dunlurnin, Duncairin, Dunlivin, must also refer to historic art and design (with a play on cutesy cottage names).
We await the catalogue’s essays and interview to enlighten us and in the meantime, we enjoy the artist’s arresting visual and material fluency.