Las of the Mohicans 

The primal art of William Morris

It is the Summer of Sculpture at the Boise Art Museum. In addition to the earnestly promoted Degas exhibit, two intriguing Seattle-area sculptors are having surveys of their work, William Morris and John Grade. The latter two have much in common, including strong ties to nature and natural form, the influence of unfamiliar cultures, and a talent for making their materials look like something else. But for dark drama and machismo William Morris definitely takes the prize. His show of glass sculpture from the early 1990s on entitled Myth, Object and the Animal encompasses a range of themes and personal imperatives including universal man, cultural diversity, shamanism and animism, archeology, the cycle of birth and death, and the environment. His objects and installations are metaphors for the transitory nature of life and man's ever-diminishing relationship with the animal and spirit world. The cultural pluralism that is de rigueur in post-modern art is here in spades, but in Morris' installations its presence is very straightforward, without ideological spin or, for that matter, even interpretation. In this it is more like the ethnographic appropriations in early 20th-century modernism. continued on the next page

Not that Morris is simply out for visual effect. On the contrary, these are all serious matters for the artist. His entire oeuvre is an encapsulation of a personal philosophy and lifestyle. Morris lives in a log house in the woods and he has long been fascinated with Native American customs and rituals, even going so far as to emulate the primal ritualism of the hunt. He spends several months each year hunting elk alone with bow and arrow in places like the Bitterroot, Wallowa and Elkhorn mountains, wandering the higher elevations of the Northwest. Morris likes to hang out at Native American burial sites, and has studied petroglyphs and pre-historic remains and artifacts in detail. All of this, in addition to a genuine interest in other ancient cultures, is the source of his imagery, which is why it reeks of authenticity. The hunter-gatherer model is an ideal Morris intimately relates to--there are no gimmicks here.

It is fitting, then, that working with forges and molten material is Morris' craft of choice. To the ancients, of course, fire had a tremendous symbolic and empyreal significance as a purifying and cleansing force. And as one of the earliest technological achievements of mankind, glassmaking has immense appeal for those interested in hands-on primitive technology and tool-craft. There is a physical aspect to it too that I'm sure resonates with Morris. Photos of him in the "hot shop" show him to be tall, lean and buff, hauling around 50 pounds or more of molten glass at the end of a blowpipe. In this environment, Morris becomes Vulcan working his magic, turning heat and sand into a fiery mass that he pushes and pulls into rather amazing sculptural forms.

There is no question that Morris is a virtuoso in his chosen medium. Originally he worked in ceramics, and the influence of that art form is evident in the way his vessels and shards convincingly imitate unearthed pottery right down to the cracks and chips. He is a master at achieving surfaces that look nothing like glass, simulating fired clay, metal, stone, bone and shell. His technical prowess is such that his life-size animal and human heads, and many objects, are not cast but sculptured from molten glass, which is quite a feat when you think about it. He seems to be able to go wherever his imagination takes him, no matter what the scale.

Morris is also an accomplished colorist, more sophisticated in this realm than his mentor, Dale Chihuly. The deep reds, fiery yellows, sapphire blues and emerald greens he achieves have a subtlety and depth to them not found in the eye-candy of other glass artists. Morris introduces his colors by rolling the clear molten glass in powdered colored glass which may account for the inner light his hues often seem to have, like some kind of life force. His technique of creating opaque, antique surfaces through the use of powdered glass and minerals, etching and acid treatments further subdues and softens his colors to project a darker mood while also imprinting elaborate designs.

Morris may be the first glass artist to give his work substantive content, a voice, thereby elevating it from craft to art. He's not just out to make pretty things, but rather strives to evoke primitive man's spiritual bond with nature, and (the catalogue tells us) "suggest the profound roots of our effort to come to terms with the world that surrounds us." This is heady stuff, but Morris does a good job of pulling it off, and it sets his work apart. It also causes commentators already enthusiastic about glass to get carried away with his work. Then director of the Seattle Art Museum, Patterson Sims, was quoted in 1995 as saying that Morris "has brought an existential depth to glass that is entirely new." Glass is a tough medium to get "existential" with; its seductiveness is not conducive to conveying angst. But Morris does deserve credit for bringing a new gravity to glass.

Born in 1957 in Carmel, California, into a medical family (doctor and nurse parents), Morris began exploring caves, mountains, Native American burial grounds and excavation sites at an early age. Thus began his fascination with raw nature and prehistoric cultures. His high school had a ceramics program, which he became very involved in. He also tried his hand at glassblowing at a nearby facility. He says, "It was everything that ceramics was, but more. I loved it." Morris pursued his interest in these two crafts at California State University at Chico and Central Washington University, then in 1978 at age 21, took a job as a truck driver at the still fledgling Pilchuck Glass School. Although the summer art colony and campus founded by Dale Chihuly was only seven years old, it was already beginning to attract reputable artists as instructors. In his free time Morris practiced glassblowing, assisting as an unpaid member of Chihuly's studio team, and he advanced so fast that within a year he was an instructor and Dale himself had taken him under his wing. During the first half of the 1980s, Morris served as Chihuly's master glassblower (or gaffer), and later, in 1989, became Pilchuck's artistic director. Even after going solo, he continued to use the Pilchuck facilities during the nine months the school was not in session. He now has a studio there.

In the mid-80s Morris struck out on his own, and the difference between his art and that of Chilhuly was immediately apparent. Whereas Chihuly's imagery was most often inspired by the sea and its life forms, Morris' was rooted in pre-historic subjects and artifacts. Chihuly delegated much of his role to others, and his team cranked out several pieces a day, while Morris is more deliberate, hands-on and involved in his art-making, seeing it through to the end and taking his time. Another big difference was Morris' emphasis on drawing, which still informs his work. His technique evolved from drawing on the form to the form itself being the primary means of expression. In 1993, he told American Craft magazine that when he first started in glass, he was primarily interested in drawing, with the glass essentially being a study for the finished drawn image: "Then, as my skill increased I was able to apply drawings directly onto the glass, and the glass itself became the drawing--moving and stretching the image. Now ... it's the form that's primary and the surface embellishment is there to enhance the form."

Another important step in the evolution of Morris' aesthetic was his transition from a pictorial art in which he arranged various elements to create still life-like vignettes, to a sculptural one using simpler compositions that integrated meaning and form. To an extent, we still see that pictorial, still life effect in some installations like Cache, now at BAM, and picturing and illustration are still an important element in his work. But where his studio skills can be most impressive is the way he uses glass to sculpt form rather than casting it. In 1988 he went to Venice, Italy, to study the highly specialized process of fabricating solid glass sculpture. These techniques have enabled him to create each component of a work, from the smallest detail to life-size figuration, without the use of molds, and to achieve individualized sculptural form that would be difficult to achieve with mold casting.

Walking into the first of the four galleries housing Myth, Object and the Animal, and stepping down to the sunken floor, one is confronted by a macabre piece that would be at home in the late Vincent Price's art collection. A blind black raven perches on a glowing, translucent skull holding in his beak one of the two miniature red and black vessels that inhabit the skull's eye sockets like fiery globes. It is fitting that this memento mori introduces us to the show, as mortality is a subject Morris dwells on a lot in his work. Both human and animal skeletal remains are a perennial motif along with other reminders of death like stacks of elephant tusks and spears. So too are his various urns and vessels associated with ancient funerary rituals. There are his urn-like sculptures based on the canopic jars of ancient Egypt, which were used to preserve the human organs removed from the corpse prior to mummification. In the early to mid-90s Morris enhanced the scale of these jars and used them as supports for animal heads sculpted in glass (see below). More recently he completed a series of Cinerary Urns, which began as a memorial to his late mother and evolved into a tribute to the victims of 9/11. At BAM, eyeless black ravens holding shards in their beaks from the Pueblo and Greek-inspired pottery on which they sit, are Morris' version of the Grim Reaper exacting his toll and marking time. And so on. Somehow, despite all these references to death his art is not particularly melancholic, but remains surprisingly affirmative.

The most successful installation in the exhibit is the 40-foot-long Artifact Panel (1998), an entire wall of more than 300 miniature artifacts, creatures, biomorphic abstractions and talismans all made from blown glass. It could be a display of an ocean floor archeological find at the site of an ancient shipwreck, presenting the detritus of a lost civilization. Some of the individual pieces have fragments missing or reveal other "damage," reinforcing the sense of antiquity. Although many of the forms reference historic glasses from early Rome, Persia and medieval Europe, they are imaginative renderings by the artist, not historically accurate copies. It is an impressive and fun work.

In a gallery all by itself is the stunning installation Cache from 1993, one of Morris' most popular works. Looking like either the stash of a very successful ivory poacher or an extravagant dinosaurian rib cage, the 36-foot-long collection of curved glass elephant tusks enclosing scattered human remains sculpted from black glass, various ritualistic implements and other tokens of devilry, has distinct shamanistic overtones. The tusks themselves are quite beautiful with layers of contrasting colors; glowing, molten-looking interiors; and authentic surface effects. If anything they are a bit too glitzy for the work's dark, supernatural implications. In fact, Cache does not really succeed as a whole. We find ourselves marveling at each individual object, even at a distance, whereas its totality never quite comes into view, conceptually or visually. We can't see the forest for the trees.

The third phase of the exhibit is of more recent sculpture, and has a different character from the previous rooms. In the earlier work, the human element in Morris' universe was more implied than overt, represented mostly by artifacts and skeletal remains. In his Man Adorned series of sculptures, Morris, as the wall text tells us, "puts flesh on the bones." These rather fearsome face masks, heads, and figures are all of a type, you might say, composites inspired by African, Asian, Oceanic and Native American peoples in which Morris (the text tells us) "[aims] less for realism than for an essence of ethnicity." In other words, they are not portraits but essentially exotic mannequins which the artist sculpts to display an array of primitive modes of ornamentation he recreates in glass, from jewelry fashioned from bones and bird skulls, to tattooing, scarification and body piercing. This part of the show has more the feel of an ethnological/anthropological exhibit than one of contemporary art. But it certainly has its moments, like the individual head entitled Man Adorned (2001) wearing outrageous eyewear fashioned from seashells.

Also in this part of the show is the Canopic Head: Eland (1995), a pharaonic-looking beast on a canopic jar pedestal that, unfortunately, has the hokey improbability of a Brad Rude sculpture. In Trophy Panel (1998) Morris returns to the kill, with a series of antlers from elands (an African antelope) attached to bits of skull and sporting little vessels, creatures and other knickknacks with magical connotations. Trophy Panel is handsomely executed even if the testosterone level is high. It's rather Gaston-esque, if you get my drift.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over the last 20 years on Morris, testifying to the widespread interest his sculpture generates. In a society as technology obsessed as ours, an art that evokes, indeed celebrates, the primitive ties between man and nature while projecting a certain majesty and a persistent perfume of spirituality has an undeniable appeal. The work is handsome and accessible, drawing the viewer to it with its visceral pleasures. Factor in the immense popularity of glass art generally, and one begins to understand why Morris is in over 65 public art collections worldwide.

Yet, glass art's glamour and seductive beauty has always been, for me, part of the problem with the medium, misgivings that have not been dispelled by this show. It seems that any artist's non-aesthetic premise or intent, no matter how profound, is inevitably overshadowed by the innate gorgeousness of glass. It is a matter of the medium undermining, or overpowering, the message, which is a problem an intellectually curious artist like Morris must grapple with in his art. BAM's exhibit provides us with examples of both the successes and the limitations/pitfalls of this art form.

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