By: Lindsay Covington, Assistant to the Curator
Michael Morrill’s pieces are restrained in their color palette, but each work’s radiant golds and rich blues evoke a sense of profound contentment within the viewer. His canvases are about quality rather than quantity; simplicity rather than overcrowding. As stated by J.J. Winckelmann, considered by many as the founder of art history, the most poignant art is marked by “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” -- a concept which Morrill masters. He looks back through time to classical antiquity from Egyptian statuary to Renaissance panel painting, but mostly to 20th and 21st century abstractionists for inspiration. Each of his canvases is saturated with this lineage. He embodies the essence of art through time in his use of gold and blue, which is has been seen in world art for millennia. Morrill titled the show Deja Vu Blue to recall this illustrious color combination, appearing time and time again not only in painting, but also in sculpture, prints, and other media. Something about the pairing arouses our human subconscious, stirring up unanswered questions about the mysteries of civilizations, cosmology, faith, and life.
Conceptually, each work is reminiscent of a different geographic region or period of time based on the artist’s titles, his musings and meditations. Trappist I, for example, is a nod to the dwarf-star thought to provide enough light for the possibility of life on surrounding planets. This focus on deep space physics gives rise to a realm where precise definitions and scientific proof give way to the imaginative, to hypothesis, and invention. Tigris and Euphrates, on the other hand, was inspired by the area of modern-day Turkey and Syria connected by the two rivers, where the ancient Mesopotamian society blossomed—commonly referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization”. One piece launches us into the universe, the other takes us to the birthplace of artistic production as we know it. Both, however, are tied together by their deep blues and radiant gold leaf, reminding us of our place in the ancestry of humanity, and of what lies ahead when we are gone.
When analyzed side by side, the two monumental pieces evoke different reactions. Trappist I connects us to what could potentially exist outside of our known world. How do ancient artistic representations of holy figures -- figures whose omnipotence extends beyond our world -- coincide with current scientific exploration of spheres out of our reach? Morrill presents this complexity through the layers of blue shades in Trappist I, each one stretching further into the unknown. Tigris and Euphrates grounds us not only in the history of art and society, but makes us question how the Middle Eastern region has developed over time. The uses of blue and gold in art has evolved since the days of early Mesopotamia, but so has the society centered around the fertile riverbed, now a region plagued by conflict. The two panels in Tigris and Euphrates show the continuous flow of the rivers, while marking a distinct rupture along the equator of the painting. Each of Morrill’s works tells its own story and links to history at a distinct point. Each piece, however, makes sure to connect us to one another, to our predecessors, and to whatever may lie ahead of us.
The endurance of Mesopotamian artistic traditions for centuries, including the use of lapis lazuli and gold leaf, speaks volumes about the innate human reaction to this fusion of colors. Morrill looks not only to the origins of art, but also to the way blues and golds have been manipulated throughout history. Walking around in the Renaissance and Medieval sections of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, one can see a pattern emerging. Especially in Christian triptychs and diptychs, the rare blue pigment set against gilded grounds and halos reveals the divinity of the Virgin Mary or other saintly figures. In the triptych of Virgin and Child with Saints (Master of Johnson Tabernacle, 1461), for example, the gold of the background casts an ethereal glow over the people depicted, while emitting a brilliance from within the painting itself. The blue of the Virgin’s robes, in contrast, signify her importance as a religious figure.
Artists have continued weaving this thread of blue and gold in their works during the centuries following the Renaissance, all the way into our contemporary era. Yves Klein, for example, invented ‘International Klein Blue’ -- a pigment of unparalleled depth -- in the 20th century. During his Blue Epoch, he made blue casts of his friends, including Arman, which he then set against gilded panels. The Arman, displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, recalls the strength and virility of ancient Greek godly statues, such as the classical Laocoon Group or the Apollo Belvedere. The combination of solid blue and gold in the installation places a modern lens on this rich art historical heritage. He mixes the colors of traditional Christian art with the forms of Greek mythology, tying together the most striking aspects of two powerful empires.
To look at one of Michael Morrill’s works is to take a journey through thousands of years of art history. The exhibition Deja Vu Blue is a reexamination and conformation of his longtime commitment to the expressive power, mystery and dignity of abstraction. Working within the constraints of the blue and gold leaf color motif Morrill utilizes the full range of his experience with ancient and contemporary art making materials, techniques, and technologies, ranging from gold leaf, synthetic acrylic and oil paints, and digital imaging.
The painting Déjà vu Blue, for which the show was named, uses the classic triptych format. The reductive palette of blue and gold leaf further explores contrasts between absorption and reflection of light in a tripartite composition that fuses the geometry of Carl Andre with the color-field techniques of Mark Rothko. Here, Morrill’s use of blue and gold leaf explores the behavior and enchantment of light, while making a subtle reference to the depth and richness of art history by evoking panel painting. Morrill once again places his art in dialogue with the masters. Hypnotic and thought-provoking, Morrill’s pieces radiate modernity while paying homage to the past.