Death of the author: Paul Morrison’s Auctorum at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield

By Jenni Davidson | 04 July 2012
A black and white picture of a giant carnation with trees, leaves and a castle behind it
Paul Morrison, Rhexia (2011). Linocut© The artist
Exhibition: Paul Morrison - Auctorum, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, until November 4 2012

Paul Morrison seems a bit discomfited that he’s mentioned Wittgenstein twice in conversation. That might give the impression that the philosopher is one of his sources of inspiration, and Morrison is not keen to let on too much about his influences.

Best known for his black and white paintings, the enigmatic Sheffield artist, doesn’t want to define what his art is about, preferring to leave it to the viewer to create their own interpretation.

“I’m trying to be generous, so that anyone from a university professor to a small child can experience the work,” says Morrison. “I don’t want to say, ‘No, you’ve got that wrong. That’s not what it means.’”

A black and white picture of a house with a large flower in front of it and patterned sky behind
Paul Morrison, Tropopause (2012). Acrylic on linen© The artist
“It’s really important to me to keep it open, to not be prescriptive. I don’t want people to get out of it what I want them to get out of it.”

“You need to know this much, that what it means is what you want it to mean.”

He is trying to create an open, multi-layered system, he says, that depends on your experience, and you “riff on it” to create meaning.

It’s like going to Italy and looking at a fresco, he explains. You might experience it as a religious thing or you might see it through the eyes of a mathematician and look at the geometry or symmetry. It depends on your own history and background.

Morrison chooses not to have his work written about, instead leaving the art to speak for itself. In this exhibition there is almost no text barring names of works, dates and media, and Morrison even picks obscure names for his artworks, so that the title won’t give too much of a clue to meaning.

He refers to his titles as “liminal” and “pretty oblique.”

“[The title] has a resonance to it that compliments the image, but you don’t know what it means unless you research it.”

One of these “oblique” titles is the name of the exhibition itself. Auctorum is Latin for “of authors”, which seems to link to Barthes’ theory of the death of the author and hints again at Morrison’s intention to involve each viewer in his work.
The name may also refer to the fact that Morrison’s artworks are re-authored amalgams created from existing images. He goes to libraries and antiquarian bookshops for source material and fuses modified found and appropriated images into something new.

A black and silver print of a lady wearing tudor dress with trees in the background
Paul Morrison, Tilia (2011). White gold leaf and acrylic on linen© The artist. Photo courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery.
Morrison juxtaposes botanically accurate plant drawings with cartoony Mr Men flowers. He plays with perspective, so that leaves are bigger as trees and flowers tower over houses. The resulting creations seem both familiar and unfamiliar: the individual elements are recognisable, but the whole looks odd and unsettling.

Stipe, a giant monochromatic wall painting, has a huge tree stump, giant ferns and naïve flowers against a backdrop of a spooky-looking house, a Renaissance landscape and, in the middle of it all, a tiny fir tree that appears vulnerable and lost in this jumbo landscape.

Rhexia focuses on a huge, dominating carnation, while Tropopause combines a sinister-looking haunted house and a psychedelic background with a rather jaunty-looking oversized flower.

Morrison says the images are about the landscape in your mind’s eye. They are psychic landscapes, like scenes you remember, but without the colour or the perspective.

The black and white images are a bit like a child’s colouring book, waiting to be filled in. This lack of colour is significant. Not also does it give the artworks enormous visual impact, it also leaves the viewer to mentally fill in the colours as they wish, again putting the onus on the viewer to be involved in creating the image.

Morrison seems to have something like a Platonic archetype in mind. “You can get more colour without using colour,” he says. “If you think about a dandelion the evocation of colour is richer. It’s like when you read a novel and read the word rainbow.”

There is also something uncanny about all of Morrison’s work. The pieces have the sense of a backstory, as if something has happened or is about to happen, and the images often include fairytale elements. But the overall effect is more Brothers Grimm than Disney.

What Morrison will admit to, in terms of inspiration, is that he likes black and deadpan humour and has a range of influences from Dürer to Disney, Brueghel to Black Sabbath.

The statue of Tilia is covered in gold, but has creepy cat-like eyes. She’s like the girl in Goldfinger trapped inside an encasement of gold paint, but the gold isn’t paint; it’s 24-carat gold leaf, which brings to mind alchemy and Midas as much as James Bond.

A black and silver print of a man with a dog
Paul Morrison, Dendrobium (2009)© The artist
The anchor and love/hate tattoos on Tilia’s hands hint at a maritime background, however, while one of her wrists seems to have been sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster.

Tilia the print, on the other hand, has a Disney Snow White face and a realistic Tudor outfit. The black spot behind her - and the black suns in several other pictures, including Rhexia, Dendrobium and Stipe - may reference Wittgenstein’s black light, Malevich’s Black Circle, a blind spot, a solar eclipse, or none of the above.

In the pseudo-portrait Dendrobium, one eye belongs to Robert Smith from The Cure, but the rest of the face is half Nasmyth’s Robert Burns, half a friend of the artist’s.

Images and motifs reappear again and again in different works. Tilia’s tree necklace pops up in various paintings and dandelions are one of Morrison’s key motifs.

“It’s like being in a theatre company,” says Morrison. “You’ve got your cast of characters. They recur.”

The Tilia gold statue was inspired by one of his paintings, which was inspired by another painting. Morrison says it took him ages to decide on the name Tilia, but she has now become a persona and will always be Tilia.

Auctorum is Morrison’s most diverse exhibition in the UK to date, with sculpture, gold leaf prints and a large-scale film installation, as well as the iconic black and white paintings and drawings.

The Millennium Gallery wanted to put on an exhibition with a local connection and looked round for an artist who had the experience and range of work to fill their very large exhibition space. They chose well with Morrison.

It’s a beguiling exhibition that draws you in with the symbolism and the stories left untold. Just don’t ask Morrison what it all means.
  • Open 10am-5pm (Sunday 11am-4pm). Admission free.

More pictures:

A gold and white print of flowers and trees
Paul Morrison, Anacardium (2011). 24 carat gold leaf and acrylic on linen© The artist. Image courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery.

A photograph of a man standing in front of a black and white wall mural
The artist in front of his wall painting, Stipe
© Museums Sheffield

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