JAMES MORRISON: PORT DAVEY, TASMANIA
Main Gallery Exhibition
Excerpt from a conversation between James Morrison and Sandra Bridie, 24 April 2002
Sandra Bridie: James, what kind of environment are you trying to set up in the gallery at Gertrude?
James Morrison: I am going to paint the gallery a deep purple to evoke a salon, the colour will evoke plushness but will obviously be false. I recently saw the Moreau Museum in Paris, once his studio and apartment. I guess I am wanting to evoke the same feeling — but with an Australian sensibility — which was not overtly decadent but slightly exotic.
Could you talk about the disjunctive sense of your paintings. I wonder if that sometimes more, sometimes less hallucinatory world is something that you very consciously construct?
I am extremely conscious of that. I construct the paintings, I guess, on many different levels, working on up to ten paintings at once, going backwards and forwards, 'refolding' paintings, it you like. I guess you get that slightly disjointed, jarring feeling. By reworking and labouring over the surfaces, the original stories get pushed to the back but still resonate or taint the final product. Because I am working from sections in one work and then swapping over to another work, they are like a large collage, coded, but you could follow a thread out of the labyrinth.
So rather than working within the internal logic or symbolic constraints of one work, is your approach to image making more narrative then, like a magical realist story?
They are very narrative-based I think. As I work there are little jokes and other little stories happening. They are also very autobiographical.
Certain works have an over-ripe quality about them as if you encounter the world through a heightened, sensory preoccupation. This 'overstimulation or surface', with its obsessive fine detailing of effects, is often combined with a deliberately crude adolescent style, such as the nude girl riding a shark with the crashed plane in coral waters, for instance. In other paintings there is a more contemplative mood created by quieter, Glover-inspired Tasmanian landscapes of gardens and forests. Could you talk about how you see these seemingly conflicting themes in your work?
I see them working as a whole. They started off quite over the top and bizarre, I suppose. Now I am narrowing everything down. In some of the Tasmanian landscapes the approach is much more subtle. I guess they react against each other and balance each other out. These sweet little landscapes tone down the other ones. I think I am also interested in the more obvious clichés, because all the landscapes are basically clichés. I borrow from here and there...
Are you copying from books or are you looking at books as a starting point and then doing your version from the source image?
For the animals and some of the botanical elements I use photos as a reference. Ideally I would like to paint from the real thing but in terms of time and logistics it is a bit hard. With the landscapes I use photos as an initial contact but then as the work progresses I change things around to suit the narrative. There are references to Australian landscape painting, people like Namatjira, Glover and Von Guerard. I am interested in Namatjira's work — besides it being very beautiful — because of his fractured life and the cultural complexities of the work. In my own landscapes I have always had a problem about how to acknowledge an indigenous presence, but now I am thinking that its absence is more telling than any trite symbolism I could conceive
In many paintings there is a 'Land Before Time' quality of mythical landscapes and creatures. You were brought up in Papua New Guinea weren't you? When did you live there?
I was born there and brought up there. I guess that's where the colour and the 'exotic' in my work come from, and the colonial aspect In the work came from an awareness of being a white person in someone else's country. Also the work is influenced by reflecting back on the history of painting, and fact gathering and exploration that went about in the 19th century. The idyllic romantic landscape is probably nostalgia about childhood, and my interest in that in terms of my own upbringing and past.
The darker, more colonial paintings do look Tasmanian. Have you been looking at Glover?
I have always been conscious of Glover and I love that awkwardness about his work, that European dorkiness, slightly wrong, but trying very hard to be right in a wrong sort of a way.
There's also the predatory-paradise world evoked in the over-ripe, tropical works with their collision of elements of humidity, sexuality and impending doom.
I guess in every story about paradise there's a disaster, that's part of the process to attain paradise. You get cast ashore on the beach from a shipwreck or a plane crash like a castaway, so it's a rite of passage — to get to paradise you have to go through the trauma. For me, working with images like that balances out the sweetness.
I am wondering how the more colonial inspired 'Tasmanian' works will hang with the more lurid wacky work — are they going to be mixed up together?
I am conscious of that and I guess they are all different aspects of one little world. I've decided to call the show 'Port Davey, Tasmania'. It's a little port on the southwest corner of Tasmania. So, in essence, they are all from that region and everything is happening down there around Port Davey. The more polite, more subdued paintings are different aspects of the landscape, the more lurid paintings are sunsets or sunrises, whereas the slightly more naturalistic paintings could be a different time of day or an aspect of the landscape.
Now James, I am wondering if the coral life in Tasmania is quite like the coral life in the painting of the nude girl on the shark, with the crashed plane in the background? She's a survivor who has managed to tame a shark.
Yes anything could happen. One is Early morning Los Angeles, which is not far from Port Davey. You are just going to have to trust me on that.