I haven’t done a blog post about art since I wrote about Amy Lin’s “Dot Art.” I stumbled upon Larry Morris’ metal sculptures at the same place, the Torpedo Factory in Old Town, Alexandria. Here is an example, titled “Meditation.”
So what’s interesting about this sculpture, other than the fact that it instantly brings a smile to your face? Where Amy’s art is inspired Outsider Art, Morris’ is clearly a good deal more informed by the mainstream art world, and admits a lot more interpretation. Pondering Morris’ pieces led me to an interesting idea I call “solemn whimsy.” The pieces may look like sculptural gags welded with a straight face, but you can definitely find more than just laughs in his pieces. Once I had the solemn whimsy concept clarified in my head, one other good example occurred to me: Demetri Martin’s new sketch comedy show, Important Things (brilliant, but uneven).
In my review of Amy’s art, I mentioned the distinction I personally make between “look at” art and “look through” art. Morris’ art at first blush, seems like “look at” art, but as I’ll argue, it is actually “look through art.” I defined “look through” art as follows:
[“Look through” art] gently amplifies my tendencies to look at the world in particular ways. It equally gently subdues my tendencies to look in other ways. It does not grab me by the scruff of the neck and force me to look at the world a certain way. It does not seduce me into look-at mode for too long. It also does not imperatively summon me to [a] point of view (that’s something I call look-as art…)
Most of his sculptures (except for his recent work) are based on an abstract primitive element, the tetrahedron/triangle. But it isn’t the possibilities of the abstraction that are being explored, much less dogmatically enforced. In a piece of abstract art, a dissonant element like the zzz bubble might be viewed as a technical exercise in counterpoint, but here it serves as a narrative focus. The story is not deep. It is just a quick smile at the fallibility of human striving, one that doesn’t belabor the point or slide from kindness to contempt. As visual narrative, it shimmers between the staged fourth-wall theatricality of those old Rembrandts, and the “simultaneous moment in many stories” quality of regular slice-of-life impressionism. The impressionism here though, is not the massively parallel variety you find in a Renoir. It is of the more literary, Chekovian variety. Yet, this is not a full-blooded story; it dances between the narrative and the conceptual. If plot does not dominate, neither do the sub-archetypal characters. The story isn’t the point, it frames a “look through.” It’ll take a bit of justification for me to get there, but first, let me clarify the narrative-conceptual-balance idea.
Triangular Neighbors of “Meditation”
The triangle is just about the simplest elemental two-dimensional form, so conceptual artists love it. Buckminster Fuller and M. C. Escher of course, come to mind. But the triangle also lends itself to more narrative uses. There are two interesting forms of triangle-art that usefully bookend the conceptual-to-narrative spectrum that Morris’ art inhabits. On one end you have the classic Chinese Tangram, which is both a puzzle and a medium for art (so like Bach’s Musical Offering, it actually steps over the line separating mathematics and art). It consists of seven pieces (of which five are triangles) that are created by carving up a square. Here is an example of Tangram art (in the classic form, all pieces are black; puzzles consist of silhouettes with the internal lines invisible, that the player must recreate:
This is classic conceptual abstraction. While Tangram creations are occasionally warm (there are Tangram designs that come close to Morris’ “Meditation”), mostly, the restriction to just the seven pre-defined pieces allows too little leeway for all but the simplest narratives: about the only artistic lever you have is non-right angles in point-contacts, like the head in the design above.
The other end of the spectrum is rather anemic by comparison. The only example I can think of is the classic Spy vs. Spy series from Mad magazine where triangles dominate the artwork.
At this end, narrative overwhelms form. The simplicity of the basic primitive element is put to work in the service of plot and character. What it does is allow the narrative to be painted in broad, spartan strokes. That is normal for comic-book art: the complexity of the artwork is usually deliberately limited to the complexity of the narrative texture. Imagine Peanuts style scripts for Modesty Blaise style realist artwork. I’d be really interested if somebody could make that work as more than a superficial joke, but the converse seems to be effective, as the recent viral hit, Watchpeanuts shows. (On second thought, perhaps there is one example: the Calvin and Hobbes’ realist sequences).
Speaking of Watchpeanuts, there is a second element in Morris’ art that we need to highlight before we have all the raw material to define “solemn whimsy.” This is quotation: what the Watchpeanuts cartoon does to the original Watchmen comicbook.
Look-Through Quotation and Look-At Quotation
Quotation, whether postmodern-ironic, satirical or as homage, seems rare in Morris’ work, but where it occurs, it does so in an interesting way. I am not super art-literate, but the only one I spotted was “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
The original is, of course, Marcel Duchamp’s famous painting of the same name. Duchamp’s version is clearly something of a Cubist exploration of motion, without a whole lot more going on. There may be more, but though the original stuck in my mind as clever the first time I saw it, I’ve never seen it as more than a clever technical exercise (when it was created, of course, it caused quite a stir).
But Morris’ quotation of Duchamp is not a normal one. Normally, quotation is a backward-looking artistic choice, one at least partly driven by what Bloom called the anxiety of influence. Normal quotation is what makes the art world incestuous and periodically threatens its vitality. A classic example is Francis Bacon’s well-known Study After Velasquez’ Portrait of Pope Innocent X. Here’s Bacon’s version:
And here is Velazquez’ original, which Wikipedia asserts is one of the finest portraits ever. Unless someone tells me something different, I assume this is a standard piece of Renaissance art, though the Pope’s expression is interesting, and he eerily resembles a student I had in a class I once taught:
Between Bacon’s work, which looks at and reframes Velazquez, and the original, there is probably enough material for a couple of histories of Christianity. So what’s the difference between Bacon’s quotation of Velazquez and Morris’ quotation of Duchamp? You get the feeling that Bacon saw Velazquez’ original as a significant and consequential text within a particular Christian grand narrative and felt an urge to challenge it (for example, by reframing the Pope’s trappings of power and authority as helplessness and imprisonment in a gilded, velvet-lined cage). At the same time, there is a response to a purely artistic anxiety of influence, the normal game of one-upmanship that every generation of artists plays against the previous one. The result is a certain amount of self-important earnestness that ends up saying more about the art world than about the world itself.
The other sort of normal quotation, is that of high-culture by pop-culture (the many quotations in the Simpsons come to mind) or vice-versa (Lichtenstein, for instance), where the intent is often to render the once-significant commonplace, as farce (or vice-versa, rendering the apparently farcical significant; Lichtenstein made many take a more serious look at comic-book art).
But Morris’ mode of quotation struck me as being neither completely reconstructive-ironic like Bacon’s, nor completely pop-high (it is certainly not an homage, in the sense of the countless ‘Odessa Steps’ homages to Sergei Eisenstein). To the extent that his sculptures tend towards the narrative Spy vs. Spy end of the triangle spectrum, yes, there is an element of the farcical pop quotation of high culture. To the extent that it tends towards the conceptual, Tangram end, there is an element of reconstruction. But these are practically side-effects. There is something more basic going on. I got the sense that the use of Duchamp’s work for Morris was no more complex than his use of whatever real-life scene of urban meditators inspired “Meditation.” Duchamp’s original is just another convenient lens through which an interesting piece of solemn whimsy can be constructed. It being a well-known piece of art is mere coincidence. It might just as well have been a particularly poignant garbage can on a city street.
Reconstructive, ironic and farcical quotations are look-at quotations, since the subject is the referenced work of art itself, or an alternate take on the reality the original art chose to pick out and highlight. Morris’ quote of Duchamp is neither about the work of art itself, nor an alternative take on whatever Duchamp’s piece was about. It is about Duchamp’s piece as a prop, an ordinary piece of current reality. It is being put to use to help us look through to something else (that said, it isn’t true irreverence of the sort that puts a fat literary novel to use as a doorstop).
So let’s get back to my overall claim, that Morris’ sculptures are “look through” art, not “look at” art. The one common thread in all his sculptures is that they attempt to capture “eternity in a moment.” Recall William Blake’s famous verse from Augeries of Innocence:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
This verse is usually dragged in whenever writers need a workhorse quote that captures a child-like sense of wonder about the universe. A different way to think of the verse though, with all its connotations of a recursive fractal reality, is as the essence of the scale-free “slice of life” Impressionist aesthetic. Recursive perspectives of reality are to impressionism what Joseph Campbell’s idea of the monomyth (or Hero’s Journey) is to the more pedestrian variety of epic Hollywood storytelling, where scale means something.
Morris’ art, to the extent that it is narrative in form, in the literary-impressionist vein, gets at “eternity in an hour” type statements the same way a Chekov short story, or a Renoir classic does. But unlike Chekov or Renoir, who used the timeless to inform the view of the present, Morris uses the present to inform the view of the timeless. The “seeing” goes the other way, and this is where dancing between the conceptual and the narrative helps. Go to either end, and you get “look at” art: you can’t easily “look through” a Tangram design or a Spy vs. Spy story to whatever you want to. But in the middle, with a little whimsy to help, you can look through. Let’s do a thumbnail analysis of the two pieces I’ve talked about.
The joke in Meditation only holds your attention for a few seconds, and you quickly find there are no depths to be plumbed within the joke itself. The point of the joke, the whimsy, is to gently turn you away from the “look at” mode. The narrative element stops you from getting all theoretical and wondering about non-Euclidean space-time (Escher often forces you down that road). But the conceptual element, the triangular-tetrahedral simplicity, stops you from going down the bunny trail of wondering about the cultural meaning of modern retail-driven $15-a-session meditation, complete with Nalgene bottles. Cultural commentary isn’t the point either. So what is the point, if it isn’t to “look at” a narrative, or think about theories or cultural meanings? The point is whatever you are still able to look at, with those three lines of sight cut off. What the art does is simply arrest those three common modes of looking, so you are free to look with fresh eyes at something else. The only gentle encouragement you get from the tiny narrative and joke, is to ponder “eternity in an hour” sorts of things.
Nude Descending a Staircase is a little more complex. It blocks the three lines of sight (look-at narrative, conceptual, and cultural commentary) that Meditation does, but it also stops you from going meta and thinking about art itself. I know this post seems like a contradiction of that point, but while pondering the piece, I didn’t think of Duchamp’s original for more than a second, and that was just an inconsequantial note, “oh, a Duchamp quote.”
So that’s what I mean by solemn whimsy: a piece of art that is balanced finely enough between the narrative and conceptual to prevent you from thinking too long in either mode, with just enough whimsy to steer you away from look-at mode. You just might look through and see nothing; the Buddhist sort.