George Morrison's Horizon

Hey, I always said there'd be at least one of these a month.

Hey, There,

Sorry for the gap. I don’t know about you, but it’s been hard to do a lot of coherent thinking as 2020 grinds on. But sometimes thoughts cohere!

Working through the fog, I thought maybe it’d be easier if I did a newsletter or two that focused on individual works of art. And then it was obvious which one I should talk about… I’m pretty sure this is my favorite work of art in the Twin Cities. In a very real sense, this was the piece that first highjacked my eyes, grabbed my brain by the lapels, started shaking, and saying “HEY! HEY! YOU LIKE ART, DIDJA KNOW THAT, PUNK?” I am, to be clear, talking about George Morrison’s 1974 Collage IX: Landscape on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The digital image here doesn’t really do this piece justice. For one thing, it’s enormous, and never let anyone tell you that size doesn’t matter when you’re talking about the impact of art on a wall. Morrison’s wood collage dominates whatever wall it’s on and overwhelms your senses. Once it’s grabbed hold of you, you can’t help but soak in the details. By its size and aspect ratio (and presence on the wall of an art museum), you expect it to be a painting. It looks like it could be a painting! (and as the MIA’s label probably tells you, Morrison liked to characterize these collages as paintings made of wood) But no, it’s hunks of wood shaved down to uniform thickness and assembled together like a wild do-it-yourself puzzle.

So it’s already awesome – in the original sense of inspiring awe – by size and by surprising materials. But then the longer you look, the more complexity emerges. The title, after all, includes the word landscape. And as you soak up the painting, a landscape emerges: you see a flat horizon line, implying water, with high, sloping hills descending into it. A round piece of wood towards the top looks like the sun getting ready to set over those hills.

If you’ve spent much time in northern Minnesota, the association clicks together pretty quickly. There’s one place in the state that’s known for its gorgeous views of big water with high, sloping hills: the north shore of Lake Superior. And guess where George Morrison is from.

I fell in love with this collage for aesthetic reasons and for the association with Lake Superior, which I had also just discovered at the time; but as I got older and learned more about George Morrison, my fascination with him just deepened my appreciation for this work.

Morrison was a member of northern Minnesota’s Ojibwe community; he was born in a place called “Chippewa City” that, sadly doesn’t exist anymore. You drive through it and see a small sign noting it as you drive north on Highway 61 out of Grand Marais. Morrison grew up there and showed an aptitude for art; when he finished high school, he attended the institution that would later become the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He then moved to New York, to paint and further study art; he also spent some time after World War II in France.

Untitled, 1960, George Morrison.

Through this time, Morrison was a very active abstract expressionist painter. I don’t want to sound like I’m diminishing these paintings by saying this, but they essentially looked like fairly standard mid 20th century abstract expressionist paintings, with a fairly distinct color palette. In 1970, his career pivoted when he moved back to Minnesota and began to engage more directly with his Ojibwe heritage in his art. At least a little bit. This usually took the form of depictions of Lake Superior or the Witch Tree, a tree near Grand Portage that’s important to the north shore Ojibwe community.

Openings, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, George Morrison, 1993

Surrealist Landscape, 1984, George Morrison

Morrison worked through his life to balance acknowledging his heritage without being defined by it; he liked to say that he thought of himself not as an Indian painter, but as a painter who happened to be an Indian. When, decades into his career, a Twin Cities newspaper noted that his work in a group show at the Walker Art Center didn’t include – and this is a direct quote – paintings of “buffalo, war dances or eagle feathers,” Morrison firmly replied to the paper that “An Indian doesn’t have to paint tipis to be an artist.”

In a way, I feel like I’m doing George Morrison a disservice just by bringing this up; he wanted to be thought of primarily as an artist, but inevitably now every discussion of him seems to move towards talking about him as an artist who didn’t like an ethnicity label attached to him; and talking about that is its own form of attaching a label. But on the other hand, looking at this is a great way to highlight the way in which the art world encodes white maleness as the default, with any deviation from it becoming the thing that defines the artist. Like I keep saying, this is loosening up a little bit in the past few decades, mmmmaybe, but just a little bit.

So anyway: wallow in the majesty of this wood collage, and check out George Morrison’s other works, and if you feel like spreading the word about him, I guess it’s up to you to decide if you want to say you know about a great artist, a great Minnesota artist, or a great Ojibwe artist.

Right on. Be safe.


RECOMMENDATION

I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in grad school, and enjoyed it, but it was that kind of grad school reading situation where you just have to power through something without the chance to savor it. And that’s no good. So now I’m in the middle of a more deliberate reread, and MAN is this a great book. It’s moving and thought-provoking; it’s also, and this is kind of under-reported, just a fun read. X was a very smart, witty guy (as was Alex Haley, who co-wrote the book with him) and his/their prose just zips along. His life story’s amazing (especially the vibrant, vivid descriptions of Harlem life in the 40s, where you can still feel X’s ambiguous feelings towards what he considered a low point in his life), his descriptions of racial dynamics in America are eye-opening, and the wider journey of his evolving relationship with the complicated parts of the theology of the Nation of Islam is really satisfying to work through. I can’t recommend this book enough.


SOME LINKS

Earlier in the quarantine era, we really enjoyed Mrs. America on Hulu, the examination of the rise and fall of the Equal Rights Amendment. This piece does an interesting interrogation of the series’ choice to foreground Phyllis Schlafly as a somewhat-sympathetic antagonist.

Oh hey did I mention that I’m famous now for my Iowa City Police Log comics?


CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

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