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League of Extraordinary Pretensions: Julia Morison at CAG

Forum > Reviews

Loop Around a Loop

Julia Morison at Christchurch Art Gallery
23 Jul 2006 - 24 Oct 2006

by Pyrrho
80 Comments
Article of the Month September 2006
ALoopWithinALoop

Alan Gibbs, the multi-millionaire tycoon art collector, said recently: 'With good art, you don't have to explain it' ('Sunday' on TV1, 27/8/06). Whatever the shortcomings of that statement, he obviously wasn't thinking of Julia Morison when he said it. Her current exhibition in the Christchurch Art Gallery, and all her work for that matter, requires a great deal of explanation indeed. It has been explained and justified in glowing terms by some of the most reputable art writers and thinkers in the country. Yet it still seems very much in need of further explanation, despite the 'same old same old' being trotted out over and over again.

The CAG exhibition provides a spectacular derangement of the visual senses in the vein of Rimbaud, which fits entirely with Morison's aesthetic love affair with late 19th century French Symbolism and decadent dandyism. Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du mal' ('Flowers of evil') are abundantly present, in sinuously intertwining Art Nouveau-esque decorations and Japonismic flora. Morison wants to keep reminding us, ad nauseam, that beauty is only skin deep; that underneath the alluring attraction of every beautiful fleshly surface is stinking putrefaction and decay, if not happening right at this instant then sooner or later to start.

From there it is but a short step to Surrealism, and she is in the throes of an equally unrequited romance with that also, such as in the versions of the '100-headless woman', the Francophonic pun (Duchampian, presumably) on 'La femme cent têtes' / 'La femme sans têtes', where, in collaboration with Martin Grant, she recreated surreal dresses and torsos à la Max Ernst, De Chirico, Magritte, Delvaux. (Not to forget the influence of Frida Kahlo's depictions of bodily abjection, and sado-masochistic bondage practices too while we're at it - the Marquis de Sade was of course yet another illustrious / notorious Frenchman). Nothing makes sense in Surrealism, though chance encounters of sewing machines and umbrellas on dissecting tables are painted as if they should make sense. Or as if there is some sense to be made somewhere, if you only look hard enough and try to add up all the clues.

The same is equally true or even more so (if possible) for Morison: everywhere there are clues, but none of them add up to anything – anything, that is, that hasn't been done to death before. But that's just the point: her whole project is one of art historical necrophilia – the living dead fetishistically getting off on the relics of the actually dead.

Her Achilles' heel is that there are far too many clues, as if she can't stop herself encyclopedically appropriating art historical and medievalistic influences left right and centre, all the better to pretend that it is even more 'potently mystical' for doing so. But it isn't, because everything ends up cancelling out everything else. 'More' for Morison turns out to be not 'less' but 'nothing', no profound significance whatsoever: at bottom she (or at least her artist-persona) is a nihilist, the puppeteer of an empty, soulless, lifeless masquerade of exquisite cadavers.

Stir into the mix the pretentious pseudo-mysticism of the Kabbalah and it gets even loopier. Medieval alchemy, occultism, Aleister Crowley, astrology, tarot cards, divination, Harry Potter, black and white magic, hermeticism, new age religion, satanism, witchcraft, demonology, numerology, The Da Vinci Code – Morison turns all of that, and more, into high art, for the up-and-coming illuminati of the art world to be initiated into, and for rich and discerning collectors of oh-so-very-elegant kitsch to die for.

Morison is certainly aware of the madness in her method, if the fact that she has called the exhibition 'a loop around a loop' is anything to go by. Everyone knows there's a fine line between madness and artistic genius. But it is the earnestly-calculating pretentiousness that grates, without a trace of anything genuinely human and life-affirming – no humour, no joie de vivre, no warmth. Just the all-consuming obsession to give her work 'a potent, mystical air', and to write herself into art history by appropriating and capitalising on the league of extraordinary gentlemen (the Symbolists and Surrealists) that went before.

http://www.christchurchartgallery.org.nz/Exhibitions/2006/LoopAroundALoop/

Julia Morison at her Christchurch dealer gallery 64zero3.com

www.juliamorison.co.nz
amalgame-87-1993-mixed-medi gargantuas-petticoat-oolala gargantuas-petticoat-tootoo EndBegin EndBeginDetail Gargantua Mono Mono-Detail


Comments:
1 to 20 of 80
Lee-looking-profound-1
Artbasher
137 articles & 705 comments since 12 Feb 2005
Wow.

Knoby
22 comments since 20 Jun 2006
"With good art..."

I think there's nothing wrong with calculation in Art, but Morison has brought in too many elements, too many ideas... "complex" isn't the word to describe it, but rather just "confused". I couldn't help feeling like she's latched onto these themes of elements and symbols and then stuck with them as a trademark, but they just don't say anything. It almost felt immature, like a talented high school student's year 12 project. And much of it felt dated... should "good art" date?

Perhaps my objections are just the result of a retrospective. If fewer, more powerful pieces had been shown I feel like it would have been to her credit. But maybe it's also good to see the average stuff as well as the great?

I just find her at her best when she's super simple , like in Excrement/ Gold (not at this exhibition), and/or funny. The rest was just noise.

Populuxe
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
Just girding up my loins,

and will eviscerate and vilipend you both as soon as I have a moment.
Knoby
22 comments since 20 Jun 2006
Well I haven't

had a good evisceration in a while....

I liked the Gargantua's Petticoat works - like, they're complex and calculated in the good way methinks .... although, if you go up close to them, they can be a little shabby (not super clean tidy lines, etc) ... maybe intentional?
the ambassador
134 comments since 13 May 2006
well i think it's not a bad thing to draw

upon a vast numerical quantity of ideas. i do think it's a bad idea to draw upon a vast quantity of influences, especially if all of them are visibly manifest, as you end up with a noticeable lack of your own idea. but looking at the above works does not make me think this. if anything, all of the list of influences in the above review seem to me to be markedly absent. this woman seems to pay only lip service to the great and dark arts. maybe it's the photography, but i think she is worshipping at the temple of the great pastel overlord, known to the halfpie mediocre throngs as satin. this work lacks balls and the strength of its supposed influences. she's like a reverse alchemist- she's taken gold, and turned it into shit.
william blake
29 articles & 728 comments since 15 Aug 2006
i just watched alan gibbs

on a video, explaining the big steel fence in his backyard, for about 20 mins. But i know what he means, strong and silent is a very powerful position. Explaination seems defensive or worse promotional. With good food you dont have to explain it.... unless you are talking to a chef... or a vegetarian. The very best art needs no explaination but will provoke discussion. As Oscar Wild said 'only the Queen is not a subject'. (sic)
Pyrrho
3 articles & 39 comments since 23 Nov 2005
Provoking discussion - absolutely!

That's right, William Blake (or can I call you William for short, or Willy?): discussion is also what one hopes will follow from writing an art review, especially on a site such as Artbash which thrives on it. So far, though, all is rather quiet on this Western front, despite the dire threat from Populuxe. I really was hoping for an impassioned response from him, but perhaps he hasn't found the right "moment" yet?
Populuxe
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
All right then,

admittedly Julia's works have an esoteric sensibility, but to suggest there is somehow something wrong in the fact that the work seems to allude to meaning without there really being any is entirely specious. Perhaps it is a literary conceptualism - had it occured to me at the time of reviewing, I would have compared Julia to Umberto Eco (though I strongly doubt that Eco is high on the reading lists of the majority of Press readers).

It is a visual game in the same way that a novel by Eco or Italo Calvino (or indeed, any of the Ouilipo and Pataphysical movements) is. But meaning or 'truth' (cf. Richard Rorty) is largely meaningless because it it is the lusciousness of the referents, the semiotics and the imagery that are important. I use literary analogies because Pyrrho in particular seems to have an officious librarianish approach to knowledge which is clearly at odds with Julia's dilitantish visual flaneurity.

Pyrrho - you said: "Morison wants to keep reminding us, ad nauseam, that beauty is only skin deep; that underneath the alluring attraction of every beautiful fleshly surface is stinking putrefaction and decay, if not happening right at this instant then sooner or later to start". Well duh! So is most 17th century painting - the momento mori is still relevant if it is inventive.

Nor are nihilism and romanticism mutually exclusive - and your attack on the French influenced surrealist elements in her work is puzzling - though accurately observed, I fail to see your point. It is no less interesting than endlessly regurgitating Paul Klee.

"Her Achilles' heel is that there are far too many clues, as if she can't stop herself encyclopedically appropriating art historical and medievalistic influences left right and centre, all the better to pretend that it is even more 'potently mystical' for doing so. But it isn't, because everything ends up cancelling out everything else. 'More' for Morison turns out to be not 'less' but 'nothing', no profound significance whatsoever: at bottom she (or at least her artist-persona) is a nihilist, the puppeteer of an empty, soulless, lifeless masquerade of exquisite cadavers."

Quite the opposite I think, nothing could be more appropriate for a hypermediated, hypersemiotic Baudrillardian/Lyotardian world solipsistically obsessed with itself and apocryphal nonsense because rationalistic worldviews are 'too hard'. Definitely not kitsch though, which is immediately comprehensible and unchallanging (cf. Greenberg, Kundera etc.)

"Morison is certainly aware of the madness in her method, if the fact that she has called the exhibition 'a loop around a loop' is anything to go by. Everyone knows there's a fine line between madness and artistic genius."

Pardon? I'm still reeling from the hoariness of that cliche and rather embaressed for you that you chose to let it out of its cage.

"But it is the earnestly-calculating pretentiousness that grates, without a trace of anything genuinely human and life-affirming – no humour, no joie de vivre, no warmth."

Well, Michelangelo is hardly "warm", nor was Grunewald particularly celebrated for his "joie de vivre" and if you can detect anything "human" in abstract expressionism, you have a far higher intellect than I - where, pray, is it written that art has to be warm and fuzzy to be good. Would you prefer Beryl Cooke?

"Just the all-consuming obsession to give her work 'a potent, mystical air', and to write herself into art history by appropriating and capitalising on the league of extraordinary gentlemen (the Symbolists and Surrealists) that went before."


Is that the faintly distasteful tinge of sexism I detect? What of Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo prithy? I suppose they were capitalising on this "league of extraordinary gentlemen"? Was Louise Bourgeois doing so in the 1960s? Is Bill Hammond doing so now? Judging from the work of many painters in New Zealand, India, South America and Asia, Surrealism never went away.
Populuxe
19 articles & 495 comments since 9 Aug 2005
Furthermore Pyrrho

Your assertations are ironic given the philosophy of your nakesake: acatalepsia, "the impossibility of knowing things in their own nature because every statement will always have an equally reasonable contradiction". The original Pyrrho also believed that because of this it was necessary to maintain an attitude of intellectual suspense because no assertion can be known to be better than another. It seems to me that is what Julia is doing. Your negative response is curious, because as Pyrrho number one also observed that as nothing can be known, the only proper attitude is ataraxia, "freedom from worry". Thus the wise man should withdraw into himself and not pursue complex thought.

The proper course of the sage, said Pyrrho, is to ask himself three questions. Firstly we must ask what things are and how they are constituted. Secondly, we ask how we are related to these things. Thirdly, we ask what ought to be our attitude towards them. As to what things are, we can only answer that we know nothing. We only know how things appear to us, but of their inner substance we are ignorant. And yet you persist in demanding meaning?

Perhaps you should reconsider your nickname, or else take some the philosopher's advice: "the same thing appears differently to different people, and therefore it is impossible to know which opinion is right. The diversity of opinion among the wise, as well as among the vulgar, proves this. To every assertion the contradictory assertion can be opposed with equally good grounds, and whatever my opinion, the contrary opinion is believed by somebody else who is quite as clever and competent to judge as I am. Opinion we may have, but certainty and knowledge are impossible. Hence our attitude to things (the third question), ought to be complete suspension of judgment. We can be certain of nothing, not even of the most trivial assertions."1
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
How odd that Pyrrho has not grasped the

visual codings used by Morison in her exhibition. You don't need to read the wall labels to comprehend and enjoy the artist's formidable design skills. You don't require the accompaniment of a warbling docent or curator to recognise the exuberant humour and warmth of her wild imagination. Pyrrho has put energy into sniffing around the footnotes and addenda without realising there is an essay to be read above them.
the ambassador
134 comments since 13 May 2006
i think that the

"formidable design skills" displayed smack of karen walker-does-resene-paint-charts. all pastel and wussy. she has a nice turn of line, and a decent sense of elliptical stability, but why does she fill it up with my little pony colours? is this a sign of her "exuberant humour?"
as for umberto eco, last thing i read of his was "the name of the rose" or whatever the hell it was called. it was okay in a which-monk-was-into-other-monks-and-threw-one-of-them-from-the - bell-tower-inspiring-even-more-monks-to-try-to-find-out-who-was - the-killer-monk sort of way. but i was 15, so it was more than half a life ago for me...
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
So you are one of those rustics who think art has no connection with design,

eh Marten? I think you need a trip to the Christchurch Art Gallery to get educated.
the ambassador
134 comments since 13 May 2006
in my mind,

design is distinguishable from art, in that it speaks of wider concerns. design, simply put, is purpose, nothing more. design may be applied to a vast amount of activities, many of them with no aesthetic value necessary whatsoever. design feeds from available budgets, available materials, and determined function. design has importance with regard to physical state and physical laws only. if say, whilst rotting my brain on ozone here in sunny raglan, i happen to order a new surfboard, then the state of design will be of huge importance only in how it rides. the template, the rocker, the rails, the tail, the fin size, shape, and placement; will be my primary concerns. but whatever design of a more decorative nature, ie spray, decals, stickers etc, will have sweet fuck all bearing on the performance of my board. it is trappings only, mere thingies to try to get people to pull that board out of the rack over others. flim flam, labelling, marketing. important if you are the one trying to shift the units, but not really of concern. more so people will have tangible reasons to identify with that product, to reflect the way they wish to portray themselves in their lives.

so. i can certainly admire the state of design. i acknowledge that it can be in instances elevated to an artform. i have worked with a well regarded design team as an illustrator, for an international company turning over many millions of dollars, for a period of four years or so. but i was asked to do so for the way i live and the state of my art, not the state of my design. design looks to so many other facets of life, and feeds from them.
jt
6 articles & 46 comments since 2 Sep 2006
art and design, design and art

have never been mutually exclusive, so John's original point about taking a good look (loop) around the Morison show is perfectly valid. The overwhelming symbolism and philosophies evident throughout the show are a byproduct of the survey, as Knoby pointed out, but it's kind of like going into a Hotere retrospective and complaining that there is too much black. We have come to know what to expect of Morison's work, her themes stretch over thirty years of practice, and what is so impressive about this exhibition is the sheer amount of work that has been created in that time. Populuxe, in his non-Umberto Eco-referencing Press review, quite rightly expressed some sorrow over works that are absent from this show, but again this is the nature of such retro's. What is on show seems to be a vast array of work that utilises design aspects in ways that have been evident over those thirty years, even if things like the Crossing the Rubicon works are not on show to strengthen this fact. The versions of those pieces that I have seen are all quite strong, contrasting colours, far from the pastels of newer work, but the idea that these new pieces are insipid or Walker-esque is ridiculous. Walters-esque would be more appropriate, at least for one of the Gargantua panels, but as has been stated, each one draws upon a different influence/inspiration, and the fact that the entire entity holds together so successfully is really quite impressive. I don't think this would have been more or less true if the pinks had been cadmiums, or the mauves had been prussians. The subtlety and restraint are part of what enhance the overall design, instead of slapping you in the face with it.

Comparing Morison's work to a surfboard is the most redundant thing I have ever read. Yes, I know you were talking about a more generalised concept of design, and function versus fashion, but let's keep things in context shall we? Morison has spent thirty years following her own path, designing (yes...) work at the highest level, finally pulled together and recognised in an appropiate setting.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
Marten, it's good to hear you admire the

As an illustrator you should see you are a designer too. Why not give credit to those who are brilliant at it, and use it in their art practice?
the ambassador
134 comments since 13 May 2006
i mentioned in brief the aspects of

morisons' above works that i liked- i said i thought she had a nice turn of line and a decent sense of elliptical stability. i still think the works above are wussy.

I have spent the last four years doing a multitude of things, chiefly based around riding boards and making things. compared to some of the things i have had to do in order to not go under, a bit of work for a company that makes surfboards and pays me to draw pictures isn't the end of the world.

and jt- design is broad and non-specific as a term. if i discuss design broadly, and find an analogy that fits the point i wish to illustrate- that of functional design versus eye candy point of sale design; then it seems to me to be valid enough.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
The Paton/Milburn selection seems to be a sample

pitched to frequenters of mainstream municipal galleries and not say, experimental art spaces like The Physics Room. And it is a fantastic introduction on that account.

But you could construct Morison shows around any number of themes and fill up the same CAG space. She's a particularly prolific artist with heaps of exciting work not included in this current show. Some of those themes could be:

Investigating Sex and Gender.

Libraries and Books.

Garments Beyond Fashion

Her Photography and Moving Image works.

Non-corporate Logos

Narrative and The Shape of Language.

Christchurch and Dunedin artlovers are incredibly lucky to have this exhibition. Those poor old Aucklanders and Wellingtonians really are missing out.

Chris Taylor
1 articles & 308 comments since 30 Apr 2006
Missing out

......indeed John. It has a very limited audience (population wise) just being seen in Christchurch and Dunedin. I see it was a partnership between the two public galleries, it seems odd that they weren't able to arrange it to be toured. I recall that one of the important founding functions of MONZ/Te Papa was to provide a national exhibitions touring agency. Dissapointing.
John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
I absolutely agree, Chris.

I've wondered about this issue. Often institutions want exclusive rights to a show to attract art tourists to their city. Greg Burke used to bring exciting overseas shows to New Plymouth knowing that to see it you had to make a pilgrimage. That would make the Council happy.

For 'Loop' I think the fact that Te Papa owns two key works [Vademecum and Golem] may be a major issue. They wouldn't want them away more than a year. However it would be easy to make up a cracker Morison show with other works that would stun North Islanders. That would make CAG and DPAG some good money with tasty fees. I'm surprised they haven't gone for that. It's so obvious.
the ambassador
134 comments since 13 May 2006
is there no agreement between

new zealands' public art galleries to ensure that works can tour, in a similar way to say, the library systems? are works purchased with public funds not able to be toured for the viewing pleasure of the purchasing public? are the public art spaces so dissimilar in their aims that they can sit on works like that? are the countries' art spaces owned and funded regionally or nationally? it seems to me to be odd that the impetus of these places is to make it more difficult to see works, when surely the point should be to share them and make it easier to show them to people, not inspire tedious roadtrips, when exchanges and swaps on a temporary basis could ensure shared knowledge and awareness of works.
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