Darkness On The Edge of Town: The Paintings of Shaun Morris
by Andrew Smith
Shaun Morris’s paintings might be seen as responses to the kind of mental and physical landscapes explored by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their book Edgelands. Indeed Morris himself has situated his work in relation to their text, and to other contemporary English artists exploring similar territory, notably George Shaw, David Rayson, and Laura Oldfield Ford. Edgelands, as discussed by Farley and Symmons Roberts, are in-between, liminal places, between city and country - those areas where “overspill housing estates break into scrubland, wasteland … underdeveloped, unwatched territories”1; more solidly they are, or contain, paths, landfill sites, ruins, industrial estates, a panoply of rarely considered landmarks. This territory is ordinary, in the senses of common and of non-descript. On entry, then, it offers a vantage point for the observation of the ordinary, the often overlooked – in the paintings of George Shaw and David Rayson, for example, the looking back from the waste ground, at the estate houses just, or years ago, left behind, to find, in the case of Shaw, that the estate is also the wasteland.
As borders or boundaries edgelands are changeable, porous, both spatially and temporally. They let things and people and memories in and through. They manifest traces, the detritus, of the places they border, and of social and economic tides: a motorway cutting through fields, pylons, a flyover – imagine, now, and remember, standing or passing under it. Exploration and danger – there is something of both in Morris’s nocturnes, in the invited passage through the dark frame, the framing pillars, into the floating lozenge of unnatural light. One may, the paintings seem to say, enter and leave the underworld, the world of shades – you can see the way through at times: and, it might be that you stay with this nowhere, this limbo, as Farley and Symmons Roberts say, this “necropolis of motorway pillars”2 – perhaps, it could be, that what might be staged here appeals, the nostalgic knot, or intersection, of entry and exit, leaving and returning.
Morris shares a motif, an ostensible subject matter, with Laura Oldfield Ford - the motorway flyover, seen from underneath. Her drawings of the M6 are light, fading illustrations of motorway architecture: parts of the drawings are erased, or undergoing erasure, and parts of the surface of the drawing are graffitied over – the effect is that the concrete seems to be drained of its weight, its force sapped, transferred to the graffiti. By contrast, Morris’s paintings are, in the main – because of the bands of black - dark and heavy. There is though, also, a form of erasure, since architectural detail is displaced, or covered, subsumed into shadow, an absence. The structure, the matter, becomes anti-matter: the pillar could be a pillar-shaped hole – could one, then, enter this black hole, rather than the light space between the black bands, or is the hole really a bar?
It could be said that Morris constructs a space that at times seems not to be a space at all – the pillars are there but they’ve been flattened: as bands, bars, they are the absence of, a blocking of, the light between or ‘behind’ them: or is it that the light segments are floating, interrupting a flat dark continuous surface, or are they, even, in front of them? How do these things go together, and are they even things – is a shadow a thing (is a memory, is an idea)? The bands of black are certain, emphatic – and, if, as Marion Milner says, “painting is concerned with the conveying of the feeling of space”3, then these imposing bands convey an oppressiveness – yet at the same time they are uncertain, or questionable: the framing pillars, are they actually the appearance of a shadow ground? Perhaps it is that the paintings convey, through their ambiguity, something of that contradictoriness of the edgelands, as conceived by Farley and Symmons Roberts, something of, for example, the uncertainty of confronting a territory (of whatever kind, actually) which is an absent presence, seen and not-seen.
Morris has spoken of the paintings as primarily formal constructs – that formal issues were the starting point, an act of translation involving articulating the subject matter through the language of post-war abstraction. He exploits various formal devices to achieve a degree of formal tension – the use of figure/ground ambiguities, dark slicing through light or vice versa, as discussed above: the juxtaposition of areas of flatness against the illusion of depth, bands of complementary and secondary colour: there is a push/pull quality to some of the paintings, opposing forces achieving a tense stasis. If we look up into the rust orange sky, we may see that this might be because the tides here are influenced by the presence of two moons - or, maybe, thinking on, it might be that we aren’t looking up even, but down into the pool of rainwater that’s collected by the flyover, and that there, on that surface, are the reflections of the moons and of the kind of dark wood that one might inadvertently wander into – you see, the ground can shift here since the territory is defined and undefined.
Let’s say that you visited this place, this flyover, this nocturne, and then dreamt about it – that it entered, nocturnally, when boundaries are porous, into you so to speak; or that you simply dreamt about it without even visiting, it came to you by whatever direct connection or circuitous route – what would such dreams mean? You could search an on-line dream dictionary – such things exist out there, where you are. And one such dictionary, alphabetically organized, features a section, under the letter M, “from Mother to Motorway”4. Well, Mother, it seems, is “holding you back”: we wait in the dark, peer through the pillars, those imprisoning bars, and through them we see, across the field, illuminated - another prison, or our escape route? And the Motorway? Obviously we’re travelling on to the end, nothing revelatory there, just be careful to avoid taking the exit too soon. But also, these are the arterial roads of the road network, and as such “represent the heart and the circulatory system”. When we look at this part of the edgelands then we’re looking at a part of something that is also central. It might be that some of the feelings conveyed by space in these paintings then, the oppressiveness that’s also an absence, the ambiguities (ambivalence?) of relation between things, of the differences between solid and void – that these are not confined to this space, this marginal space, but are, in fact, in general circulation, fundamental, at the heart of things.
1 Farley and Symmons Roberts, 2011, Jonathan Cape, p. 5
2 Op. Cit, p. 70. Farley and Symmons Roberts think of the edgelands as a place for teenage and childhood exploration, as fertile ground for artists, and, because the edgelands are largely unwatched, a place where lawbreakers might feel at home. As well as being places of waste disposal, the edgelands are also, potentially, in an interesting section of the book, a place of criminal disposal: “the dismembered parts of a body dispersed in a necropolis of motorway pillars”. And, in this “unconsecrated ground, the soul will surely enter limbo”. Noir, Science-Fiction dystopia, and literary myth – Orpheus and Eurydice, Dante’s Inferno – intersect in the edgelands.
3 Milner, 1971, Heinemann Educational, p. 11. She continues, “this was surprising at first, up to now I had taken space for granted and never reflected on what it might mean in terms of feeling. But as soon as I did begin to think about it, it was clear that very intense feelings might be stirred. If one saw it as the primary reality to be manipulated for the satisfaction of all one’s basic needs, beginning with the babyhood problem of reaching for one’s mother’s arms, leading through all the separation from what one loves that the business of living brings, then it was not so surprising that it should be the main preoccupation of the painter”.
Farley, P. and Symmons Roberts, M., 2011, Edgelands, Jonathan Cape
Milner, M., 1971, On Not Being Able To Paint, Heinemann Educational