Jennifer Morrison

Surface Depth

Surface depth. The sense of the oxymoron. Open secret. Minor crisis. Living dead.

The ostensible self contradiction illustrates more than it confuses.

What we see is the surface of a painting. What lies behind it is a depth which contains many parts. The entirety of the artist lies behind it. All of who they are is in the depths of any work. You could say that in the depths lies the idea, the inspiration, the contemporary environment, the emotional and intellectual landscape of the artist at the time of painting. It might be the light in the studio, the materials available, the artist’s ongoing back ache. The depths are also made up of the text written about it, the critics appraisals, the monetary value, the context of the gallery. The depths are made up of the large and broad and the minute and seemingly insignificant.

Of course the depth lies also with the viewer. The sum of what a person brings to an artwork can never fully be described even if that encounter lasts a few seconds and the impact has been minimal.

With some works depth appears to be hidden. A glossy, smooth flat surface asks your eye to remain there. Some artists try to take you behind the surface of the finished work, sharing drawings, notes, scribbles, scraps from the studio. But the depths can never be fully shared and the surface, no matter what it is, always contains the depths within it and herein lies the wonderful contradiction: the surface is both something in itself and is not.

It is considered wise to see beyond the surface of things. We are told not to read a book by its cover, to be aware of what lies behind the surface but sometimes this can mean that we do not see what is before us. With art the appearance of a work is often distrusted. This of course means that we distrust ourselves. We preoccupy ourselves with what we think we should think about and in the process remain blind. But the cover of a book can reveal a lot! The surface can tell us a lot about the depth but the surface can also tell us a lot about itself if we suspend any thoughts of the depth.

Painting is, after all, only anything at all because of how it looks.

There are forces at play in this series of paintings. Elemental forces which lie both within and without. A line of a branch speaks to me of struggles within me. A gnarled root, a tangled vine, the palest mist, can sum up what it is to be alive. Alive alongside death. Another eternal juxtaposition.

Decay and rejuvenation, pain and joy, claustrophobia and open space: all of this is trying to find expression on my canvas.

I am interested in creating a sense of movement; of something having come from somewhere and in the process of going to another place. That place, moving off the edge of the canvas, is a mystery to me. I have the faintest sense of what that place might be. I feel as if I am capturing something as it moves in front of me. What is this something? These tangled lines, these thick and thin smudges of paint, are simultaneously an evocation of my experience, my feeling, my memory and an interpretation of the world as I see it. This, you could call, the depth.

All this feeling and experience and observation becomes something which belongs to the canvas. It becomes an object which must stand alone. It’s genesis, it’s reason, it’s depths have to be abandoned in a sense in order to become an arrangement of colours and shapes which is answerable to itself. The surface becomes paramount. It is all that matters when I’m painting. The work directs me as much as I direct it. Picasso once said how strange it was how little the artist matters.

On the surface we like to think of ourselves as being in control but the depths tells us otherwise. You can’t think a thought without thinking it. In a sense we are spectators of our thoughts and everything else – our senses, our actions. When painting I feel this very keenly: that I am simultaneously painting and watching myself painting. I am both in and out of control. I am in charge and I am a bystander.

In these paintings there is such a delicate balance between the unconscious and the deliberate, the precise mark and the accident: the calculated accident and the true accident which can leave all in ruins or act as a saviour. I have a kind of cathartic relationship with paint and a deep love for its ability to communicate and evade precision at the same time. The need to be known and never known, to declare myself with and through my work but to forever remain resistant to being fully understood, is a powerful need in me.

The more I think and look at just about anything the more it hovers. The more it contains both itself and its contradiction. Everything is moving, nothing is certain. Everything is itself and its opposite. Sadness cannot be understood without a knowledge of joy. Darkness is only meaningful if there is such a thing as light. Surface and depth reverberate. One becomes the other and flips back again.

Between the initial vision and the finished work there is a gulf to be crossed. I paint to see or find something I have never seen or found before. But then again, perhaps it is a retrieval. Maybe that’s what we all are continually doing: repeating and re-finding to make new, to comprehend, to discard, to make whole.

Surface. Depth. Surface again.