A Hannah morris the painting is full of cunning. First of all, her designs are both paintings and collages, and it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Although they are trompe l’oeil, his pieces are not trompe l’oeil as we usually understand them; his narrative paintings are real but decidedly unrealistic. That is, unless a viewer chooses to believe that a human body can have a bird’s head.
In his current solo exhibition, “Waiting to Happen”, at Northern Girls gallery in Vergennes, Morris also asks the spectators to accept that the ground on which we walk could be salmon pink; that characters can appear in both color and black and white in the same scene; this dimensionality does not have to play by the rules. Logic is scarce here.
These several dozen works of gouache-collage on board charm us with the magical realism that we find in children’s books. Yet they seem to convey secrets, social codes, and states of being that only adults can grasp.
In other words, a Morris creation invites viewers to see and feel whatever they want to see and feel. She basically says it in her artist statement: “I want to trigger a viewer’s memory, because I believe that vision is shaped by thousands of moments that are remembered.”
Maybe “Waiting to Happen” gives us a glimpse into Morris’s own cache. The artist was born in southern Vermont and moved to central Vermont in 2010. Between these two points, she studied art, writing, and documentary studies at Bates College in Maine; lived for six years in South Africa, where she obtained a master’s degree in narrative illustration and designed an award-winning children’s book; and spent three years in New York City as a graphic designer for Whole Foods Market. Morris’s artist residencies during these years included one in Bahia, Brazil, which may have influenced the sunny palette of some of his works.
Exposure to life and climates from other continents leaves a strong visual impression, to say the least. Morris infuses a vague sense of tropicality, of non-American places, into his work, such as the luminous urban street scene “Late Afternoon” or the turquoise water of the quadriptych “Enclave”. But nothing is explicit.
Other images offer no indication of location, just groups of people in ambiguous settings. In the dark-hued room “In the Queue”, lines of people parade between guard ropes like those of airports and large concert halls. All these figures face the viewer; they’re literally waiting for something to happen – but what? The story is mysterious. The feeling of endless waiting, which is familiar to all of us, runs deep, yet these bosses seem calmly resigned.
The numbers fill the entire plane of the “In Queue” image; what we can see of the background is deep blue. The only other color appears on the faces and dull clothing of the individuals in the lower left of the square image. A spectator must closely scrutinize this sea of faces. Who are these people, where are they going and what are they looking at?
The individuals in Morris’ works rarely seem to interact; even the sunniest scenes are covered with a sense of loneliness in the crowd. The promise of being together is tainted with otherness. In “Latecomer” a group of people – some visually united by black and white striped clothing – stand or sit around or on an outdoor table. The title of the painting suggests that they too are waiting. In the upper left quadrant, a woman looks out the window at this set, both hands against the glass in an illegible gesture. Is she the latecomer? Is she unable join the group ?
A painting by Morris raises tantalizing questions and retains easy answers.
In “High Speed Rail to Your Future”, a crowd of people crowd onto a peach-colored platform in front of an elegant and monstrously huge train. It’s not clear if these travelers have disembarked or are about to board, but again, there is that sense of expectation.
In “Tree Huggers” – where the humans with bird heads appear – people have definitely arrived … somewhere. The surreality of the place, with its mishmash of botanical forms and an incongruous swimming pool, seems to strike visitors as more marvelous than frightening. It’s like a theme park where you hang disbelief in the spirit of adventure.
Morris’s background in graphic design and illustration greatly informs his work. The figures are flat, almost like paper dolls. Perspective is too: the images are stacked, while the ground and the sky are often expanses of opaque colors. A straight line separates the beach from the sea or the swimming pool.
Along with this linearity, Morris sometimes subverts the expected dimensions. In “Holidays on Horseback”, for example, a roan horse eclipses a small set of humans in grayscale; the other humans and animals in the same image are proportionately correct, while a couple, holding hands, dominate the others.
Morris’s vignettes suggest a psychological tension between anticipation and simply being in the moment; this condition is parallel to his infinitely fruitful process of research and construction of found images. Some viewers might find his works static, gloomy, or disturbing; for others, they may suggest the promise or even the liberation. It all depends, as Morris postulates, on his own record of memorable moments.