Risk, Failure, and the Conventions of Taste

An Interview with Artist Rebecca Morris

by Stephanie Washburn

Rebecca Morris is an abstract painter who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work is very personal and strongly invested in a relationship betwen abstraction and our daily lives. In conjunction with the opening of her new exhibition, “Rebecca Morris: Drawings,” currently on view at Harris Leiberman Gallery in New York, I talked with Morris about her working process.

Q. Things that shouldn’t work often end up in your paintings. Do you think much about beauty?

A. The conventions of taste are more intriguing to me than issues of beauty. For instance, in a recent painting, I had the strong urge to make a long zigzag shape that was both aqua and textured. I knew that this was probably a bad move. But I couldn’t shake the desire, and no other solutions came to me, so I finally just did it. It almost doesn’t work, but then somehow it does, maybe by the sheer force of my will!

Q. For sure. There is a strong sense of intentionality. How do you deal with the inevitable failures?

A. I think of failure as a kind of progress. That’s how I can let myself take risks and encourage failure, because I actually don’t believe that it is the worst-case scenario! I have to feel like I can try anything in the studio. The feeling of holding back is such an awful awful feeling. Way worse to me than the risk of failing and possibly ruining a painting.

Q. The paintings make reference to a range of earlier abstraction, yet they feel intimate and very personal.

A. I do have a strong art-historical awareness, and you have to, if you want to move forward and be part of an active conversation. But my work comes out of every part of my experience–when and where I grew up, where I live now, what’s happened to me, what hasn’t! My work is not a pastiche. The shapes, colors, and marks I make do not have a one-to-one relationship with references and things in the world. If I were really interested in that, I probably wouldn’t be an abstract painter. I consciously stopped making realist paintings during grad school, because, by stepping away from the literal, I had a greater ability to be intuitive and to follow my fancy, or my gut, or an idea, or a whim. When this happened, the work became mine. I think the intimacy comes from this. But these forms and gestures are really developed. And not just over a few afternoons, or even a few years, but over many, many years of work.

Q. Can you talk more about that relationship between intuition and effort?

A. Intuition can be easy and direct, but that doesn’t mean that it makes a good painting! Using an intuitive approach alone is not interesting to me. I want a level of constant engagement, which happens through a process of letting things happen and then deciding whether they work or not, over and over, in the same piece. Do I leave an intuitive move, alter it, or add something near it? The only way to know is to live with what I’ve done for a bit, thinking about it, deciding if I like it, if it’s taking the painting in the right direction. Ultimately it’s a process of self-reflection, involving a lot of trust–trust in myself, trust that my critical process is reliable, that it involves no one else’s needs or ideas but my own. This is a hard place to carve out, of course. I had a very good role model in my dad, who is a composer, and whose whole life is music. However, both of my parents/step-parents encouraged creativity in action and in thinking, so it was hardwired. Process, and figuring one’s own out, is a fairly personal issue, but my dad’s work ethic and discipline had a big impact on me.

Q. You really relate abstraction to lived experience.

A. Yes, absolutely. I actually have a lecture that I give my students called “Abstraction in the Everyday” to help them understand that they already know what abstraction is, that they see it all the time, that it is already internalized. In my work, I think this awareness helps to ground what I am doing, placing it in our time.

Q. Can you walk us through a specific example of that connection between abstraction and the everyday?

A. This is an image is of the old house of my grandparents’ (my Oma and Opa) in Yonkers, New York.

Its exterior began my obsession with Tudor architecture. I would say this house is probably the most powerful visual image from my childhood. I consistently dream about this house. When my grandparents sold it, I went through every room and kissed each wall goodbye. I can compare it with a painting of mine from 2010, a favorite. It represents one of the reduced compositions and has a raised sliver of white paint hugging the picture plan’s edge around all four sides–except where the black triangle touches. The wave moment with the wider sienna outline was a great triumph–a new weird shape. Overall, the painting has a sense of delight but without whimsy. I was sorry I let this one go, that I didn’t keep it for myself, my archive.

What links these two images is a formal connection. The geometry of forms in both the painting and the house balance across a white field in a graphic, high-contrast way. Both have a directness and wholeness to their appearance, and they each provoke a longing of something I want back. Images I wasn’t finished with.

Stephanie Washburn is an artist based in Ojai and Los Angeles and a lecturer in the Department of Art and UC Santa Barbara.

*Art by Rebecca Morris.


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