James Morrison

Darren Knight Gallery at Silvershot, Melbourne
15 – 26 February, 2005

James Morrison would make a great high school art star. His tight rendering skills, saturated colours and kitsch adolescent subject matter—the things one is expected to leave behind on entering the ‘grown up’ world of art school—are the classic hallmarks of teen art geeks. Morrison commits all of the atrocities that are normally guaranteed to drive the art academic to head-in-hands despair; buff models straight from the pages of glossy fashion magazines, butterflies, Australiana, castles, ghosts, technicolour sunsets and that greatest of all offences—fairies. Morrison makes no concession to ‘refined’ tastes, nor does he subscribe to the ‘less is more’ school of aesthetics, but one finds oneself not just forgiving the artist his transgressions, but rather applauding them.

The works on paper and small scale oils that made up Morrison’s solo show at Silvershot are quite fabulous, in both senses of the word. Benevolent polar bears live alongside Siberian tigers and rainbow coloured serpents, jellyfish fall from the sky like snowflakes, giant ants wage war on humanity and fantastic bugs flit among invented flowers and exquisitely observed hibiscuses. The black and white ink drawings are superbly handled and demonstrate an astonishing richness of line and texture (be still my printmaker’s heart!), particularly in Little Desert in which foliage and feathers are celebrated in unrelenting detail. The gouache and watercolour snakes in Cottonmouths and Wahgi Valley appear to glisten like enamelled jewellery in a spectrum of colours, as though Morrison had just been given a full set of seventy-two Derwent pencils and was determined to use them all.

But the obvious star of the show was the epic The Great Tasmanian Wars: fifty-five panels and 16.77 metres of the world according to Morrison. In this universe, Harry Potter meets Knight, Death and the Devil meets ‘Survivor’ meets Joseph Banks meets Hernando Cortez meets Where the Wild Things Are, and those are just the introductions. Wolves, crocodiles, bears, dodos, leopards, tropical fish, stingrays, seals, baboons, hippopotami, penguins, kangaroos, seahorses and bats populate Morrison’s Tasmania. Common farmyard roosters hobnob with hawks sporting tiaras and glorious parrots explode from the pages of What Bird is That?, while eagles fly past the Aurora Borealis. Miniature sharks chase over-sized platypuses under outrageously ornate waterfalls and baroque ferns, resurfacing in a Jaws tribute amid flooded skyscrapers.

The artist proposes an alternative theory of evolution, in which garlanded cavemen co-exist with deer-headed forest gods with coral wonderlands at their feet. Spanish conquistadors are major players in these wars, and Aztec warriors sporting leopard skins and wolf heads march towards a pair of debonair soldiers who might have stepped straight from the pages of Jane Austen. Morrison employs mediaeval perspective and shifts of scale that operate according to their own logic. Having just come from Grotesque: the Diabolical and Fantastic in Art at the NGV International, it was particularly interesting to compare Morrison’s vision with 16th century attempts to make sense of the world. Like Dürer and his contemporaries, Morrison exhibits a precocious attention to detail, with every feather, every hair, every blade of grass, every petal, every piece of fur in sharp, precise focus. Morrison also shares a fascination with apocalypses. Erupting volcanoes, floods, tsunamis and monstrous post nuclear insects are visited upon his Tasmania, but the Armageddon’s are presented as natural chapters in the history of a world constantly undergoing regeneration and re-invention. The naïve drawing style belies the breadth and sophistication of Morrison’s visual quotations, which are clearly the product of insatiable inquiry and an impressive attention span.

Very occasionally Morrison takes it too far—the multiple faces and limbs of the collaged figure in The Ghost and Lady Snowbird felt a little too self-consciously absurd, and I must confess the DVD piece, which followed the progress of a latter day Robinson Crusoe, could not hold my attention. Then again, it was up against the glittering jewels of the canvases and works on paper, and I am nit picking. On the whole The Great Tasmanian Wars was supremely satisfying, and one can only be grateful that Silvershot, through its association with Darren Knight Gallery, is allowing Melbournians to see works usually restricted to a Sydney audience.