INTERVIEWED BY Alastair Whitton
South African born, UK-based painter, Jennifer Morrison’s paintings project a preoccupation with colour, texture, form and the richness and flexibility of oil paint; they are unapologetically fierce in their celebration of the process of painting wherein the medium and method of their making is itself the message. Cape Town-based Art Director and curator Alastair Whitton sat down to talk with Jennifer ahead of her first solo exhibition at The Barnard Gallery titled The Depth of Things.
Although originally from South Africa, you have lived and worked in the UK for many years. How has exposure to a significant art capital, such as London, shaped your practice as an artist and to what extent has where you work influenced the way you work as a painter?
I have lived in London for thirty years but I travel to South Africa about four times a year. It’s very important to me to keep my link with South Africa. In London I’m extremely lucky to be able to see amazing exhibitions and to have wonderful art museums and galleries on my doorstep. I think this exposure informs my practice in a kind of general way. I think that the colours and forms of South Africa are generally bolder than those in England but I have come to appreciate and love the variation of greys and greens in England. These things all effect my work.
But, to be honest, I think if my studio were to be in Finland or Brazil I’m not so sure that my work would be very different.
Post Pollock, painters increasingly found a new freedom of expression and by mid- century the language of abstraction was fairly widely spoken. That said, painters often still suffer from what I would refer to as the ‘burden of the image’ particularly in more conservative contexts where the appreciation of painting is still often limited to how well a landscape or portrait is rendered. Has your work always explored the language of abstraction and what role do you see yourself playing in this ongoing conversation.
I have been dealing with abstraction for many decades now. I abandoned all figuration mid way through art school. I found that what excites me, what draws me in and seduces me is the relationship of one colour to another, the quality of a brushstroke and texture and shape. This, of course, can be appreciated in a Van Gogh painting but I feel that great beauty and feeling and depth can be made purely through the use of colour, shape and mark making. I’m more interested in how to paint than what to paint. Just as a series of musical notes can convey a feeling, a mood, a memory, so too can abstract painting. We all understand and interpret abstract qualities like rhythm, repetition, soft notes, the darkness or brightness of colours, areas of emptiness, the direction of marks. Small children can understand this. It is a language.
Viewers of art, and particularly painting, often tend to look for a ‘message in the medium’ routinely asking what it represents, what it’s about and more specifically what does it mean. Your paintings appear to be unapologetically fierce in their celebration of the process of painting wherein the medium and the method of making is itself the message. Perhaps you could comment on your choice of medium and the manner in which you engage with it?
I work predominantly with oil on canvas. There is something about the richness and flexibility of oil paint that continues to enthrall and frustrate and challenge me. I engage with it in very different ways. Sometimes I allow it to do its own thing: to drip, to smudge, to land in big blobs or to barely scratch the surface, and at other times, often within the same painting, I control it very carefully.
I actually think there is a ‘message in the medium’ but not in the way you describe above. It’s not related to representation but in the sense that a feeling is conveyed through the abstract elements.
I think that perhaps many people need an artwork to be about something and this can’t be found very easily, or at all, in an abstract work. I suppose if a figure or a tree or something can be identified it is easier to attach meaning to it. I don’t really need to know what a painting means. It seems almost taboo now to talk about painting in its own right. There seems to be a need for something else to be attached to it. I’m not really sure why this is but it might be to do with the feeling that art is somehow validated if it is about something, particularly if it ticks the current boxes like identity, environment and so on. I don’t need art to tell me a story or give me a message or to educate me.
I just need a visual reason for it to exist. A visual reason. Nothing else.
Although your works don’t represent things from life or the visible world in the literal sense i.e., they are not figurative works of art, they seem, nonetheless, to be powerful manifestations of a very real and personal response to life. Could you perhaps elaborate on a comment you made in a recent film study with reference to your practice where you said that your paintings are an attempt to convey “what it is to be human and alive”?
I think that, in a sense, all the art that a person makes is a kind of self portrait. Even if it’s not one’s intention the self is there no matter what.
I think that what I meant with that statement was that to paint, to make an artwork, is to grapple and play and struggle with the object in front of you and with what is inside of you. This is the human condition! It is also about knowing when to relinquish control and when to exercise it, when to take risks and when to be cautious. You are open to success and to failure. These are all human concerns. The bit about being alive is I think twofold: I nearly lost my life many years ago and so I’m acutely aware that life is about movement. It is about constant change. It’s about physical and mental and emotional movement. I’m aware that I need to be alive in order to paint! Not only in the sense that my heart is beating but that I’m alive and sensitive to myself and what’s around me. I try to convey movement in my paintings – something moving from one place to the other – which can be read as an internal or external happening.
Form and colour, two central components in both art and design, play a significant role in your compositions, to what degree are your choices with respect to these consciously made, or is it, as I sense it might be, a more fluid and unconscious process for you in the construction of your works? Perhaps you could comment on the method of their making.
I work very intuitively. I don’t do any preparatory drawings and I don’t think too far ahead when I’m making a painting. I have a mental image of a rough composition and I start with a couple of colours. From there I take it where it leads me. So yes, you’re right, it is a very fluid process.
With this series of paintings I am contrasting gestural and intuitive mark making with very deliberate and controlled painting. I think this might be an attempt to bring two sides of me together: the part which is open to accident, which is prepared to take risks and which uses my whole body to make marks in a very physical and energetic way, and the part which is ordered and controlled and precise and more cerebral. I think this makes for an interesting juxtaposition where these two parts of the work can confound but also strangely compliment each other. Perhaps it’s a kind of wish fullfillment!
The Depth of Things will be on display at the Barnard Gallery from 11 July to 24 August 2023.