Dancing with Chaos: Art of Keith Morrison

The surfaces of Keith Morrison’s paintings give unto a big, broad world of teaming events. That world is both outside and in – memory and observed happenstance, symbol and material fact, self and not-self. The breadth is related to Morrison’s own cultural bearings, accumulated by him – some willingly, some not – from near and far. Morrison hails from Jamaica and has lived since 1959 in American cities – Chicago, Nashville, Washington, and lately, San Francisco. Not least of all, Morrison carried with him a composite, and purposely selective, painting culture that in itself symbolizes his overall, piquant sense of identity as mixture. In the paintings all such discontinuous matters are ordered by the way of syntactic views that permit abrupt shifts in space and scale. They show imaginary land – or cityscapes – and occasionally, still-life arrangements – within which each thing sensibly, if uneasily, find a place I relation to others.

Morrison began as a painter of reductivist abstraction. He looked for ways to, as he has said, “condense messages into pure shapes” Clear, flat shapes, the lingua franca of the 1960’s, he soon realized, couldn’t carry the density of messages he was after, so he proceeded to flesh it out. How far has Morrison come  from the containment of minimalism may be signaled by the simple fact that all the works in  the present show are oil paintings, and whatever else may go into them, Morrison handles oil paint ecstatically. The ecstasy is contagious: in sheer body heat, the “whatever else” – even the most outrageous satire or cautionary tale – is tricked out like a bacchanal.

Ecstasy thrives at the rim of chaos. Or, better, reverse those terms: a chaos bred of cultural confusion has become so familiar that Morrison’s sensibility can dance within it, dervish fashion. All that exists here is on dangerous, or anyway shaky, ground. Posed along an incline plane, shapes – a regular repertory company of slave dolls, Nigerian ibeji figures, and assorted land and sea animals – register that any second the floor might slip away from under them. There is in fact, very little “floor” as such: most of Morrison’s feverish tableaux are set on, or include, bodies of water or else the juices in which all manner of stuff gets stirred, provisionally held in place by the universal pot or skillet. Where solid footing does occur it is likely to be that of an alleyway or, in the audacious zap or Red Sea, boundless sand. (Around the stewpots, of course, stretched only miles of burning coals).

It is always either high noon or nighttime in Morrison’s places; shadows, when they are cast, tend to lie flat and squat below. This wide-open lighting system in the pictures is what aligns their narratives with those of the so-called “magic realism: of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other contemporary Central American writers: it proclaims supranatural occurrence as the norm within persuasive fictive space. Practically, however, the pictures’ light owes its existence and continuity to the choices and moves of an expert colorist. (Watch how, in the overall glare of CyberCity, Morrison’s reverberant secondaries – orange, green, and violet – make with edgy, optical pops and clicks). A spangled snake will wind across a color area – hideous and enchanting in its languor. A parrot presides at the center of the disjunct creation, a self-appointed cosmic orator. If, as Morrison says, actual human figures would be “too literal” here, the dolls and figures are so invested with secrets they permit no ordinary social contact. Like the places they inhabit, they are plainly psychic emanations – to be approached warily.

Bill Berkson
December 17, 1995
Reprinted, Bomani Gallery, San Francisco, CA, 1996.


About the author (from Wikipedia)

William Craig Berkson (August 30, 1939 – June 16, 2016) was an American poet, critic, and teacher who was active in the art and literary worlds from his early twenties on. In the 1960’s  Berkson was an editorial associate at ARTnews, guest editor at the Museum of Modern Art, an associate producer of a program on art for public television, and taught literature and writing workshops at the New School for Social Research and Yale University. After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970, Berkson began editing and publishing a series of poetry books and magazines under the Big Sky imprint and taught regularly in the California Poets in the Schools program.

Berkson is the author of some twenty collections and pamphlets of poetry—including most recently Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems and Expect Delays, both from Coffee House Press. His poems have also appeared in many magazines and anthologies and have been translated into French, Russian, Hungarian, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Romanian, Italian, German and Spanish. Les Parties du Corps, a selection of his poetry translated into French, appeared from Joca Seria, Nantes, in 2011. Other recent books are )What’s Your Idea of a Good Time?Letters & Interviews 1977-1985 with Bernadette Mayer;BILL with drawings by Colter Jacobsen; Ted Berrigan with George Schneeman; Not an Exit with Léonie Guyer and Repeat After Me with John Zurier.

Beside the aforementioned collaborations, he executed extensive projects with visual artists Philip GustonAlex KatzJoe Brainard, Lynn O’Hare and Greg Irons, as well as with the poets Frank O’HaraLarry FaginRon PadgettAnne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer.

In the mid-1980s, Berkson resumed writing art criticism on a regular basis, contributing monthly reviews and articles to Artforum from 1985 to 1991; he became a corresponding editor for Art in America in 1988 and contributing editor for artcritical.com and has also written frequently for such magazines as Aperture, Modern PaintersArt on Paper and others. In 1984, he began teaching art history and literature and organizing the public lectures program at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he also served as interim dean in 1990 and Director of Letters and Science from 1993 to 1998. He retired from SFAI in 2008 and later held the position of Professor Emeritus. During the same period, he was also on the visiting faculty of Naropa Institute, California College of Arts and Crafts and Mills College. Berkson continued until the end of his life to lecture widely in colleges and universities. He published three collections of art criticism, to date, the last being For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces & More.

As a sometime curator, he organized or co-curated such exhibitions as Ronald Bladen: Early and Late (SFMoMA), Albert York (Mills College), Why Painting I & II (Susan Cummins Gallery), Homage to George Herriman (Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery), Facing Eden: 100 years of Northern California Landscape Art (M.H. de Young Museum), George Schneeman (CUE Foundation), Gordon Cook: Out There (Nelson Gallery, University of California, Davis), George Schneeman in Italy (Instituto di Cultura Italiano, San Francisco), and, with Ron Padgett, A Painter and His Poets: The Art of George Schneeman (Poets House, New York).