20 September, 2012

Pervasive Sensibilities:
an Interview with Julia Morrisroe

Julia Morrisroe is an artist and Associate Professor in painting and drawing.  Morrisroe holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Northern Illinois University and a Master of Fine Arts from University of Washington.  Exploring the role of painting in the 21st century through popular culture, Morrisroe has exhibited her work throughout the United States and abroad.

Her work was included in the national traveling exhibition “Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for the New Generation” which originated at Carnegie Mellon University, (PA). Morrisroe’s paintings, drawings, prints and installations have been included in exhibitions at Purdue University (IN), Bakehouse (Miami), SPACES (OH), United States Embassy Bulgaria, First Street Gallery (NY), Ronnebaeksholm Arts and Culture Center, Denmark, Kyoto City Museum, Japan, Mobile Museum of Art, (AL) University of Arkansas, Acme Art Company (OH), Harn Museum of Art (FL) and Boca Raton Museum of Art (FL). 

She has received grants from the State of Florida, University of Florida, State of Michigan, Illinois State University and City of Chicago.

Morrisroe has also written exhibition reviews for Sculpture Magazine, New Art Examiner and Dialogue Magazine and has curated exhibitions including Painting!, Subverting the Market: Artwork on the Web. In addition to teaching at University of Florida, Morrisroe launched an artist press, NSF (Non-Sufficient Funds) Press in Gainesville that will offer short-term artist residencies for collaborative projects.  

Hi Julia.  I’m grateful for this opportunity to discuss your views and engagements with the art world.  But please bear with me.  First, let’s pretend we’re at a picnic and someone asks, “so, what do you do?”

JM:  I paint.  They’ll say something like “ . . . landscape?” and that usually ends the conversation.  The general public is frequently disinterested or perplexed by contemporary art.  I don’t think there’s much difference in what I do from open-heart surgery or as a dog walker . . . it’s a job, but I love it.

Ok, so now you’re at an art gallery.  Do you respond in the same way?

JM:  Well in the gallery the making aspect is then evident and the audience is typically sympathetic to those concerns but it is critical that making be fore fronted.  I worry that our sense of touch, our understanding of the transformation of a material or materials into something else is becoming endangered.  The making is also important because the combined presence of handmade-ness and digitally made-ness are central components of my work, so the work itself embodies the made-ness.  I am striving to make work that reflects what it means to be alive in this moment, a point in time in which marketing, corporations, and technologies are dominating our lives.  I do this primarily through abstraction but also use appropriated images, creating systems of color, patterns and forms that capture the overload of data we're exposed to.  I'm striving for simultaneity, to capture what it’s like to be in one moment of overwhelmed time in a visually compelling way.

You have a substantial body of work developed largely through 2-dimensional media.  Often, you appropriate images and even objects (as with “All the Hot Wheels ® My Son Has“) which is perfectly sensible to anyone with an introductory knowledge of art media.   How do you explain appropriation and the presence of “readymade” objects in your work, to someone with a more conventional understanding of art?

JM:  The use of an appropriated image in my work needs to be more than a ready-made; I need to transform its materiality so it can be seen in a new way. For example, for "Pooh" I used Winnie the Pooh because he is a beloved character in children's literature. He's familiar and adored but he is also an incredible money making machine for the Disney © Corporation. Pooh is used to sell plush toys, dvds, books, crib bedding, lamps, diaper bags, socks, diapers, water bottles, potty seats, foods, cell phone cases and on and on. Pooh is a cradle to grave consumer product. In order to represented his embeddedness in our lives I embroidered Pooh directly into the gallery wall. I wanted the viewer to question his presence in the wall, in the architecture. It is an appropriated image, but it engages the viewer beyond its mere representation. I did run into difficulty with this body of work. At the time, I was also carving into the gallery wall copyrighted Disney Pooh images, such as trees, bees, and clouds as a critique on the pervasive presence of copyrighted images and corporate branding in our lives. The Disney Corporation threatened a lawsuit against the publisher of an exhibition catalog for the national traveling exhibition, Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation if they included reproductions of my work.  This is the response from the curators and publisher about the "chilling effect" of this practice.

“Chilling effect” is the legal term for self-censorship on the part of publishers faced with potential litigation. Unfortunately, our financial resources are not strong enough to defend the rights of artists whose interpretations of Disney characters and other corporately owned comic images might well lead to litigation if published. While we believe that the following images are clearly parodies or satires, we recognize that we do not have the financial means to sustain a legal defense if sued. We have therefore made the difficult decision not to reproduce this work. We are not proud of this decision: To create free of trademarks and corporate taste, to not have imagination controlled by corporations who think only of protecting their profit margin—this is crucial to the creation of art and to a free-thinking society.

The result was that Disney won; the Chilling Effect statement was published along with a black rectangle representing my work. What I learned is that corporate assets have better protection than free speech.

Is it important to have conversations about contemporary art with people who “just don’t get it”?

JM:  It is critically important but I have to admit that at times it’s painful. Right after I moved to Gainesville I met someone from the medical school who informed me that she just "didn't understand, and didn't want to understand, contemporary art, she liked the old stuff" and I was floored. I wondered if could I shock this person into sensibility by saying "I don't understand blood transfusions, so I'll stick with Leeches!"  The unwillingness to think and engage saddened me deeply. Right now there is a lot of hostility to new ideas and imagination, and a lot of nostalgia for a non-existent past and that’s hard to get around. I'm better at teaching, once students are in my classroom I know they're curious, its how they got there, so that’s always exciting and challenging for me.  I guess I’m putting my energy into building the next generation, one that’s ready to engage.

In your article "Subverting the Art Market" (2001), you discussed how the internet has the ability to subvert ownership and collectible art practices, due in part to such influences as free agent collaborations and the plasticity of online structures.  In your words: "the combination of interconnection, interactivity and interchange all coalesce into a dynamic new medium that is redefining the magnum opus."  It was an illuminating article for its time, written with much enthusiasm.  How would you follow-up on those ideas now that we are ten years into that era?

JM:  That exhibition and essay was a great labor of love and it’s interesting for me to look at it now and see how some of that thinking feeds into my own art practice today and the art works I love. The main crux of my interest was in the exchange between the artwork and the viewer.  I felt, and still do, that passive looking at a computer screen was not engaging the medium of the Internet. I wasn’t interested in static images in this ‘new’ interconnected universe; I wanted the connection that this whole system was promoting. The whole genre of online video and performative video via YouTube hadn’t started yet, heck Facebook hadn’t even begun! Ten years is a long time in technological terms, I had to get the gallery wired for Ethernet for the show. We had been on dial-up! The projects that interest me most today are those that exist both on an interactive level online and in physical space. I think it satisfies my interest in materiality, that something can be both virtual and physical at the same time.

You also mentioned “it takes a lot of web surfing to cut through the noise and get to the truly creative projects."  This seems incongruent with your conclusion that an underlying value of the internet was "An art built not upon the myth of lone genius supported by private collectors, but for the first time in history, an art independent of bias . . . “ Can you elaborate more on these ideas of power/accessibility and the search for something "truly creative"?

JM:  You make a good point; there is definitely a value judgment in there. I do hold to an aesthetic relationship with art, but this aesthetic is always evolving.  That said, Lolcat, while fun and funny, doesn’t strike me as truly creative, and although Lolcat hadn’t yet occurred online, there was plenty of similar noise out there.

One of your paintings was selected for exhibition in the US Embassy of Sofia ("Simultaneity and the Nature of Data", 2008).  What was the value of this international exchange?

JM:  That was the second work to be selected for the Art in Embassies project. The first project collapsed because the Ambassador wasn't confirmed for his appointment, so I was thrilled that another Ambassador selected my work for the Sofia embassy. I think Art In Embassies is a great example of engaging and educating the public about the value of contemporary art. Art in Embassies was started under the Kennedy administration and is one of the few remaining federal programs in this country that supports visual arts. It’s not a financial support, but it does get art in front of people and that’s a good thing.

Speaking in more general terms, what sort of issues arise when the values and perspectives of art from the US are exhibited in another country--does the sharing of our nation's art production carry the risk of imposing US culture on the artists and people of another country?

JM:  I think McDonald's and Coca-Cola are much more insidious with more lasting and unhealthy consequences. I don’t really see a monolithic “American” art; I see art made by artists who live all around the world. Art has transcended geography and has coalesced into more conceptual categories…identity, religions, politics, poetics, etc. Artists have traditionally been scavengers, borrowing ideas, materials and forms from any and everywhere to make work that expresses their ideas. I think of the influence of Japanese prints on Van Gogh’s paintings and of Andy Warhol on Takahashi Murakami’s and know that cultures have always been cross-pollinating.

And I imagine the internet would serve to complement these influences, or is there a higher risk of homogenizing world culture, given the mass accessibility?

JM:  I see what you mean, again.  It’s a good question.  I think the internet has sped up this influence.  Students can see gallery shows around the world before they’ve even opened.  So if an artist’s goal is to make art d’jour then the internet makes it easier and more possible today. But as an educator I don’t teach to what’s “hot” right now.  I want my students to know what’s out there, to engage with the dialogue of contemporary art, but also to make work that’s true to their ideas.  To build a life-long sustainable engagement, artists need to look inside themselves as well as outside themselves – when you’re doing that in a meaningful way, it’s impossible to homogenize.

Is the way in which the internet presents an artist’s identity problematic--not so much in how it represents the work--but in how we come to know these artists by what exists of a CV, portfolio, interviews and even their social media pages, all online?

JM:  I've lately heard about the differences between American artists online and European artists online presences.  In the US we're expected to have almost a transparent portfolio of existence online, with our cv, artwork, reviews, gallery links, etc. But I’ve learned in Europe it’s considered a problem. An artist friend was told by a European gallery that she was too overexposed because of her website! I think the truly problematic issue with the online presence is the failure of the camera and the computer screen to accurately represent physical work.  I’m sure the web presence can give a general idea of someone’s work, but to see it you need to see it. That visceral relationship can’t be replaced.

If I may share your case as an example: when I researched your work online I didn’t find an overtly “feminist” perspective in the discussion of your work.  Have the dialogues on art become more inherently feminist or is something being neglected?

JM:  Much as I don’t believe there is an American art, I also don’t believe there is a feminist art; there is art of influence. Disney products, Polly Pockets, Hot Wheels, Disney Princesses are all children’s products. It was the marketing of these products at my children that prompted the research that led to the work. While the manifestation of the work may not have evoked Judy Chicago or Mary Kelly they are certainly in the family tree. I might also point out that being a mother, painter, and tenured professor is inherently feminist - and rewarding.

Completely understood.  But it doesn’t mean blindspots don’t exist.  A lot of people are now learning about their world—and their artists—via the internet.  Particularly with the screens of internet censorship in place, our images are up against more a biased public and more wide-reaching filters.

JM:  This question has so many trajectories and raises so many questions for me. Does my public persona (webpage, facebook, etc.) speak to the breadth of who I am? Should it? Does that flattening, the placement of a life into a web design interface also flatten or simplify a person? Is it possible for an internet presence to provide a deeper experience with a person or artist rather than depth of her data? And if artists or any individual that wants that depth of experience, how do we go about it? And probably most importantly does the internet define who I am?

As an artist I welcome the amount of information available to me, but I know how flimsy the photographic reproduction of an artwork is. There is so much that reproduction can’t tell me. I physically need to be in the same space with artwork to know it.  This is always a challenge as a teacher, how to help students understand that their computer screen, that light, that color, that scale are all mediating the artwork they’re looking at. Every year we take a group of students to New York for a week of gallery, museum, studio hopping. I love watching them experience a Ruben, a de Kooning, a Serra and Marclay’s Clock. Being with the art, at the same place and time, completely changes them. You can almost see all the art history and studio lectures clicking into a place of understanding.   

At my school there is pressure to teach online and I just can’t fathom it. This goes back to what I said about the Subverting the Market show, if the medium is the internet then the interactivity of the internet is critical, you can’t show that work if its not online. If the medium is paint or sculpture or performance, then the viewer’s physiological response is critical, they have to be there to know it. For this type of work the internet is only a placeholder, waiting to become a memory once the experience has occurred.

Florida is one of those states that carry some unfortunate stereotypes, particularly during Election season.  What can you tell us about Florida as someone currently living there?

JM:  A visiting friend during the last presidential election observed that if Gainesville was the only place they visited Obama had Florida in his pocket, but the rest of the state is quite different. I’ve only lived here for eight years and had always lived above the Mason Dixon line, in a major city, so I am constantly trying to understand it.   I struggle to understand what unites Floridians; a sense of unity or identity and it remains unclear. Florida is a heavily churched population, and a great deal of political and social information is disseminated through that community. Sadly a lot of idiocy is too.

You recently chaired a public forum about "Artist Manifestos" at the College Art Association Conference.  Can you describe the tension that exists between the manifesto and academic writings?

JM:  The panel came about because of a graduate seminar I taught the previous year Utopia, Dystopia and Manifestos. It was a cross-disciplinary seminar and part of the course focused on reading artist manifestos as well as religious cult manifestos and some of Osama Bin Laden’s writings. Eventually this study led to the artists writing their own manifestos. It is useful for the students to boil their ideas down into the declaratives needed for a manifesto and I thought that type of directness might be refreshing at an academic conference. Most academic papers are long in contextualization and objectivity, while manifestos can be robust pronouncements of intent or motive and passion is okay too. The panelists presented a range of ideas including the Fallen Fruit manifesto for functional landscaping and sharing of fruit, Holly Hanessian’s project Touch in Real Time promoting the value of physical contact and the SPURSE collective challenged artists to rethink their role and consider collaborations in which they’re “co-composers of meaning with the real.” The artists and artist groups participating tended to have their manifestos wrapped around a specific project or artistic practice, so it was exciting that their intent was already at work, they weren’t thinking about a manifesto so much as living one.

Do you have a current manifesto?

JM:  Yes, a couple!  But do I have a global manifesto?  I really should . . . I have an “educator manifesto” and manifestos about my studio work, my philosophy of family and on an on. I compartmentalize my life so I guess I’ve compartmentalized my manifestos. This is something to think about, is it possible (for me) to create a unified manifesto, something that combines all of who I am? I’ll have to work on it.

"Thresholds" Julia Morrisroe, 26 x 30", Acrylic and Polymers on canvas, 2012

"Beginnings and Transitions" Julia Morrisroe, 42 x 24", Acrylic and Polymers on canvas, 2012

What are you currently working on and how can we keep track of your work?

JM:  I continue to explore the metaphysical impact of visual information on our society as well as the perceptual and conceptual properties of color. I’m working on a series, Transitions and Thresholds, for a one-person exhibition in Alexandria VA next summer which I hope will travel. I’ll also have smaller works in group shows in Malaysia and Japan. For this project I’ve been working with an etching press and using a laser cutter to make wood blocks. This allows me to use some images that appear machine made and others that are obviously hand made. I do update my web page, probably not as often as I should, but I try, so you can find what I’m up to at http://julia.morrisroe.com

Thank you, Julia.  Your students are fortunate to have you!

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