THERE ARE few people in this city who know the river better than Robert Morris, who have dreamed of it more often, or have communed with it so deeply.
In his second exhibition at the Ships of the Sea museum, Departures, Morris invites us to dream with him and depart on waves of gauzy impasto into the brilliant fantasy only a river can provide.
The exhibition consisting of nine large works (designed specifically for the space) is on display in the museum’s beautifully-lit high-ceilinged rotating gallery space until July 24.
“The goal here was to create vessels that took the viewer on a journey,” Morris tells me. “I thought about what it is that people relate to when they see these ships and say things to me like, ‘I could sit there and watch ships go down the Savannah River for the rest of my life.’ I realized that they were vicariously departing with the ship to other places, to adventures on the high seas. So I asked myself, what could I do to create vessels in paintings that take people somewhere else, on an imaginative journey, on a spiritual journey?”
Morris, who has been the Georgia Ports Authority’s Director of Corporate Communications for the last 14 years, has had more chances than most to reach a spiritual agreement with the river.
Each of the works in the exhibition represents a different experience for Morris, ranging from the metaphorical arrival of his newborn son to the literal epiphany he experienced while watching a ship emerge through purple winter fog.
Each painting buoys us along on an emotional tour. Standing on solid ground, the painted waves on the museum’s tile floor become frustratingly ironic.
All we want is to feel the lull of the tide which Morris’ soft, impressionistic vocabulary so vividly evokes.
“[The work] is not an effort to replicate, but to create out of,” Morris explains.
There’s wisdom here, I think. Another insomnia-curing, photorealistic painting of sunset over the river? We don’t need it. (Even if some of you might want it.)
Work that replicates will never have the same power as work that comments or even carefully considers.
Departures is at its best when it’s at its moodiest–pieces like “Purple Cross”, “Xena” and “Rhapsody on the River” shine and show off Morris’ impressive handling of color and texture. Of course, this is all by careful design.
“I used a lot of techniques to bring the texture and light out,” Morris reveals. “Three layers of gesso, three layers of white fleck or oil tempura as a base and then painting on top of that has allowed a radiance from underneath to come out.”
Inspiration for this technique came from an Indian painter named Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, an influential abstract expressionist whose careful layering techniques seemed to create a glow from within his canvases. Morris found mentorship in the form of Gaitonde’s writings, developing his own techniques for luminescence.
This light from within elevates the work, making it feel polished but not overly so.
Morris may be a trained artist with a professional background painting in a traditional style, but he lacks the pretension that such experience might (to some) portend.
Departures is fixed literally and metaphorically at eye level–while the work clearly comes as a result of Morris’ communion with the river, it is borne from his interest in communing with viewers.
“Each painting presents the audience with an opportunity to depart this world and enter another,” he says.
It’s a rare and special opportunity to be promised a particular experience and not be disappointed.
Eighteen months of work has wrought works like “Night Move” which is undeniably transportive–whether thanks to its swirling brushstrokes, depiction of glowing reflections off the black nighttime river, or a combination of both, I’m not sure.
Even the paintings’ frames are of the river, literally dragged out of it by Morris with the help of his friend and fellow artist Charlie Ellis. When the tide goes out, the men stalk the riverbed, pulling out pieces of forgotten plywood that have been rubbed with nature’s salt and baked by the sun.
“It’s amazing what you can find along the river,” Morris tells me with a grin. “There’s everything. Everything for millennia that’s ever fallen in and broken apart, been dumped or left there is still there in various elements or forms. You can’t build along the river or the tide line and you can’t stop the tide. It’s the one place in Savannah that cannot be changed.”
Morris’ works take us to a place where we can feel the power of the water and marvel at the beauty of our interactions with nature. It’s something organic in a space filled with depictions of the audacity of man.
Instead of the glory of the sailing vessel, Departures celebrates the possibilities a river affords us: departure, return, escape.
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