I'm lucky enough to know some very talented writer friends, and over the years I have asked some of them to write a response to my work to accompany my exhibitions. This page puts some of these together. The writers have always written very honestly and insightfully about my paintings and have often shed light on things I may have overlooked or not have appreciated myself. It's a real privilege to have your work discussed so seriously.
IN A CERTAIN LIGHT An Appreciation of Shaun Morris’s Seek My Face: Painting the People of West Bromwich
What’s special about West Bromwich? I ask not because as a Wolverhampton Wanderers season ticket holder it gives me the printed opportunity to say: very little. I ask because I’m made to, by a series of portraits by Shaun Morris that poses all sorts of questions about identity, both on a regional and on a personal level. I ask because diversity (in its pure sense rather than the one used by HR people charged with getting enough non-white minions on the payroll to satisfy shareholders) is no more remarkable in itself in 21st Century Britain than it was in 20th Century Britain – and yet I’m struck by it here more forcefully than I can remember being for some time. Move your eyes quickly across all the portraits in the series and then back again. What occurs to me each time I look at the work together is that beyond the various skin pigments and eyewear on show, aside from whether a sitter chose to wear a flowery hat or a falconry glove, the people whose faces we are seeking represent something that transcends both time and place, and something that goes to the heart of what Shaun is trying to achieve in his work. What is that? For me, it’s the same thing that James Kelman and Raymond Carver look for in a story; it’s what Ken Loach and Paul Abbott explore through character and what musicians like Springsteen and before him Johnny Cash pursued throughout their careers and through personal and professional crises: it’s honesty. Honesty and with it, some form of dignity.
Whatever Bernard is looking at outside of the frame; whatever’s truly going on behind Abi’s tinted lenses; and whatever Louise’s distant gaze is actually reaching for; there can be no doubt that what we are presented with here is a collection of individuals. These people are not representative of West Bromwich, the Black Country, the West Midlands or indeed anywhere or anything else; it is simply one ‘bundle of sensations’ after another, with only a shared predicament and an idiosyncratic attitude to that predicament in common. In recording and revealing these idiosyncrasies so sensitively, Shaun invites us to see beneath surfaces we are only too familiar with and to encounter the dignity he perceives beyond them. The integrity with which the artist has approached each of his sitters is for me evident across the series. You feel it: through an often unforgiving use of light; through a particular choice of background colour; through a certain strength of line that is absolutely unique to each sitter and yet also, stylistically, as distinctly about the hand that painted it as the fond use of the C word in a Kelman story. This is Shaun’s voice. Listen to it and you will hear the various characters who allowed him to draw and to paint them speak. What do they tell us? They tell us loud and clear that despite everything, life is good. And in the end, that is what’s special about West Bromwich – and indeed most places – if we care to look hard enough. It’s also what’s most special for me about this work. It tells us that life is good.
Rob Williams, London, January 2008
Shaun Morris – ‘Seek My Face’
Shaun Morris has set himself a two-fold task: completing twenty-five paintings in twelve months, whilst also addressing the question of how to represent a community. The result is a series of portraits that function both collectively and individually, and asks the question – what community is being represented? Certainly this exhibition shows the diversity of West Bromwich, but these paintings are not merely indicators of type: they are individual portraits, with specific resonance for those depicted, and for those known to them. Viewers who do not actually know the people painted will be reminded of others they do know, or begin to imagine they know; in this latter case it becomes both a record of an actual community based on geographical proximity, and also an ‘imagined community’ which allows us to speculate on the relations between people and on wider issues of identity.
A task, arduous in the physical sense of achieving the goal, but it is equally challenging for the artist to expose himself to a wider community. It could be a presumptuous project: ‘ I will show you: represent you’, with the possibility of being patronising, running the risk of voyeurism; but Morris’ approach avoids this, in part through his choice of media and working practice. These are paintings - they physically embody the time which they take to produce: the bold, visible strokes which mould the image into shape record an aspect of the immediacy and drive behind the project. Each painting begins as a drawing made in front of the sitter: Morris has visited his chosen subjects in their own surroundings, and drawn them from life. This process Morris describes as being like a performance: the sitter has expectations and assumptions about the artist and together they must negotiate these expectations and, to some extent, perform in order to make the encounter work and allow the artist to draw out an image of the person. Though the sitters’ surroundings are important they do not directly figure in the paintings - props are limited – the cap of a community warden or the falcon held by the bird handler. The transformation from drawing into painted canvas also sees the images become part of the series, united through flat, unidentified backgrounds which allow the canvases to relate to one another, and yet they must also operate individually, in the same manner that our society asks us to be both individuals and members of communities.
August Sanders’ famous series of photographs, People of the Twentieth Century, recorded archetypes of pre-war German society, categorising the subjects through their occupation – the young farmers’ haunting confidence, the fat butcher with his blood-besmirched apron – but the approach relies on the location, the clothes, the props, the trappings of their position within society. By contrast the paintings of the ‘Seek My Face’ series have both a different intention and feel: this is not a documentary project, neither are they psychological portraits in the tradition of Rembrandt or Lucian Freud, or the sometimes cruel contemporary caricatures of John Currin. Rather, I would suggest that these paintings owe something to photography, not in any attempt to imitate its surface characteristics, but rather through an element of the snapshot, in the composition and captured expression, though these are then paradoxically invested with a sense of duration that the snapshot, through its very nature, eliminates. One could draw a parallel between these paintings and our own times – they speak of an intention to communicate, but
also of the complexity and difficulty of communication. There is an honesty to these paintings - the painter doesn’t really know the sitter - many of them live outside the artist’s daily experience - but it is rather an artists’ response to a face observed, in a context briefly experienced. The consequence of this honesty is that, as viewers, we cannot rely on the artist to give us an easy access to these faces – we have to work with our own encounters, work through our own assumptions, in order to question what community is being represented. Coming face to face with an other has been called the ultimate ethical challenge by the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, and I suggest these paintings remind us of that challenge.
Christopher Bamford, West Yorkshire, January 2008
Darkness on the Edge of Town: the Paintings of Shaun Morris
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.
Andrew Smith, Birmingham, October 2013
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
Branches and leaves slowly disappear
Only to return
In concrete and steel
I stand beneath the motorway again
The forlorn noise of this place where I was born
six floors up
in the long demolished tower block
not five minutes from here
I think about the big, black shapes
formless and terrifying
the motorway at night,
I have passed into and through those spaces
all my life
I am a painter now.
The motorway incites different conjured feelings in me
The powerful and exciting drag
Large brushes in wet paint on canvas
The possibilities for new expression
in this work I have chosen.
In the day I make drawings
hidden from view under flake white skies.
I set up my easel and paint quickly
against the cold surface
my only witnesses are curious horses that graze
in swampy fields of electric pylons
dilapidated shelters of corrugated metal, oil drums and wire.
I return at night to make drawings from the car
I walk the lanes beneath the motorway
this feels crazy and dangerous
I return with a friend and a camera
and leave with views seen through a lens
that mingle and mix with
my memories that I fail to confide
in the breath of the cold air
In the studio
I excavate images out of charcoal surfaces
with blackened fingers and nails
In oil I lay in big shapes with big brushes
Oily rags collect on the black floor
that I can never really clean
are now aged, lined and warped
the years of dirty turpentine and sharp staples
Endless canvas stretched over endless wood
There is agitation and tension
In the edges of shapes that meet and collide
But there is a soothing recognition
of the familiar view
and remembrances that tell me
I am here again.
A lifetime of experiences
some numb and shrouded,
weird nightmares and vivid silences
They occupy my studio and fix themselves
in the oil paint and linseed oil and the canvas
The studio door finally opens
He steps into the moonlight
and disappears with a silent shudder
Into the garden
‘Fare thee well, my old friend, fare thee well’
Shaun Morris, December, 2014