The nearest thing to royalty that British art offers is an R.A. – the title of "Royal Academician." Mali Morris had that conferred on her in 2010, when she was 55. Of course, if she'd been making trendier art, like the YBA's, she might have made the grade in her twenties or thirties, but as her current Manhattan show at Hales demonstrates, the Academy still goes for elegant, top grade classical abstraction (God bless them). The show's called "Three Ghosts" and it will be up until December 17.
The artist was born in Caernarfon, North Wales, which is what the English call "a royal town, community and port" and in photographs is dominated by a single lovely castle. She took her B.A. in Fine Art in 1968 at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in a city which historically was "Noorth Coonthry" headquarters for coal export and is now better known as a university town (ironically enough, it is aiming in the 21st century to become Britain's first "carbon neutral" footprint.)
At Newcastle, Morris took the basic course with Richard Hamilton, well known in the '60s as the Father of English Pop. However, when she moved south to study for an M.F.A., it was at the University of Reading and there the program was run by a veteran abstractionist, Terry Frost.
Finally, in the 70s, she migrated to London and became exposed to the full range of contemporary painting – including the "post-painterly" abstractions of Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland.
In time, her admiration for these masters led her to a wider acquaintance with the next generation of "post-painterly" artists: Jill Nathanson, in a Facebook post prompted by the Hales show, recalled meeting her at the Triangle Artists' Workshop (this would have been in the 80s); ;Randy Bloom (around the turn of the century) curated a show of Morris's work for "a gathering of the tribes," the gallery of Steve Cannon; and on the other side of the briny, I seem to recall David Evison saying more than once that he'd gone to an art show with Morris.
All this, though as the gallery's press release reminds us, Morris has also compiled a formidable resume of solo and group exhibitions both in the UK and abroad, and is looked upon as a model for yet younger artists in the U.S. as well as the U..K.
In London, according to Morris's entry at the R.A. website, her studio is located in what Americans might call an artists' cooperative. It is now in Deptford, a neighborhood on the south side of the Thames famous for its docks (and for the fact that the playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed here in a tavern brawl).
Morris also lives in the area, and walks to her studio every morning across the Ha-Penny Footbridge over Deptford Creek. "My studio is on the second floor," she is quoted as saying "I have a small balcony overlooking the creek, which is tidal, always changing. I like keeping an eye on it. Ducks, swans, a heron and a kingfisher pass by."
Inside the studio, as the entry continues (and a photograph shows), "I usually have a lot of work in progress at any one time – they come in families, individual paintings that relate strongly to each other. I occasionally bring out earlier works, put them up and move them around and see how they inform each other. So there's not really a linear progression – it's more like a Möbius strip, a continuum."
The current show illustrates this well, with three large paintings and seven small ones. The small ones are dated between 2007 and 2015. They are all abstracts, with fluid paint application on the fields and frequently a few small hard-edge circles floating around on top of those fields, but there's no obvious progression from one to another: all are sui generis – unique.
Sometimes, in their scale, these small paintings remind me of Howard Hodgkin, Morris's compatriot, but unlike his work they aren't terminally cute. Rather, they're wise and mellow, packing a punch out of all proportion to their modest dimensions. And what a variety of tools Morris employs to achieve her effects! As illustrated at the R. A. website, these include not only traditional artist's brushes, housepainter's brushes, and sponges but also a tool which consists of a sponge on a stick and which is called a "diddler."
The three large paintings in this show are the ones for whom the show itself is named. They are "Ghost" (2017), "Third Ghost" (2017) and "October Ghost" (2021). And they are the most elaborate and ambitious works in the show. All three combine a field of large rectangles or squares to which has been added a very faint overlay -- or underlay –of one or more segments of large circles.
These transparent circles are, in my opinion, the reason for the titles of these majestic paintings: in their very transparency the circles look as though they had died and come back to life – as though they were haunting the canvases. What a world of painstaking labor it must have taken to achieve this extraordinary effect – applying paint, then scraping it away and/or then perhaps re-applying it (?).
Whatever the means the artist used, the effect is magical. For the circles don't obliterate the radiantly underlying squares and rectangles. If anything, they dramatize the brilliant reds, blues, yellows and other colors that characterize these paintings. The general effect is of paintings at once so still and at the same time, filled with life,