The September 11 attacks and monthly visits with Agnes Martin continue to inform the grid work of artist Pard Morrison, whose Denver installation Course comments on drought conditions in the Southwest.
Sitting in the loft of a cavernous, decommissioned school gymnasium in Green Mountain Falls that serves as his studio, Colorado Springs artist Pard Morrison—represented regionally by Charlotte Jackson Fine Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico—remembers the overall impact of the September 11 attacks, not only on the country’s psyche but also on his trajectory as an artist.
“9/11 hit and I had a reckoning with my work,” Morrison recalls. “Immediately, I wanted to pare down [my aesthetic] to the most basic vernacular [in order to] get the most feeling” from the least amount of visual information.
“For my generation, 9/11 was the moment that shaped us intellectually and emotionally. The cues I was giving people through visual images and text weren’t relevant anymore,” he adds. “A psychological transformation after 9/11 [caused] a startling break in my work.”
The wooden sculptures he fabricated—which were “laden with imagery” that he would print and photo transfer onto his surfaces—gave way to minimalist, aluminum columns whose aesthetic trafficked in colorful grid patterns.
Concomitantly, Morrison increasingly concerned himself with “how the internet was affecting us. So, I was looking,” he says, “for a mechanized effect in my work—the contrast between humanity and technology. It’s really important to me that the work look manufactured from far away.” He adds an important caveat: “But, what’s really important to me is that, when you get up close, you can see striations of the brush mark.” The appearance of the human hand at close-range, then, becomes paramount to its overall effect on both the artist and the audience.
“The importance of this work, for me, is: where does the human vernacular fit into technology? Is it shaping us, or are we shaping it? Are we stuck in it? Do we have any room to explore or celebrate? Where are we?” Moreover, the artist notes: “The grid made sense to me—[with regard to] our devotion to technology—as simultaneously a confining structure and an ever-expanding structure.”
While the events of 9/11 and the omnipresence of technology pushed Morrison away from his previous material and aesthetic idiom, another source of inspiration pulled him toward the presence of the human hand—as well as the grid as a visual framework for his artwork.
“Around this time, I was exposed to Agnes Martin’s work—who I was lucky enough to spend time with in person,” reminisces Morrison. “[My work is] similar to Agnes’s work, in that you can see her brushwork. And, generally, people associate [her] with horizontal stripes” and the grid.
While listening to Morrison recount anecdotes of his introduction to and monthly visits with Martin is enjoyable for most any lover of the arts and art history, her spiritual guidance and how he interpreted her aesthetic is important to the manner in which they shaped his artistic trajectory.
“She was a huge inspiration in my life,” he says. “She was trying to convey feelings—massive feelings. That was the epicenter of her whole art practice, and you can’t do that with words”—or, as an abstractionist would argue, through representation.
To that extent, Morrison notes that “I wanted my work to be about joy and positivity and happiness. In the contemporary art world, that’s kind of a no-no.” While “joy and positivity and happiness” might not be the emotional register the art world champions, it was, to some extent, the emotional ground upon which Martin constructed her own work. In her poem The Untroubled Mind (1972), she wrote: “If there’s life in the composition it stimulates your life moments / your happy moments.” These “happy moments,” then, are what Morrison hopes his artwork will elicit from viewers.
While Morrison understands that his color scheme appears “baroque compared to Agnes Martin,” he conceptualizes his use of color “as a compositional tool, [which] is inherently emotive.” Fostering an emotive state in the viewer through compositional elements tracks with Martin’s own understanding of an artwork and how it engenders feelings within an audience, regardless of whether her own palette appears more muted.
Striving for affirmative emotions, though, does not mean Morrison abjures pressing contemporary issues, debates, or problematic feelings when designing and developing artworks. In fact, his public art project in development for the city of Denver, an installation called Course, tackles environmental and social concerns specific to the Mountain West.
“Because [the project] is parallel to the South Platte River, it ties into water issues in the West, [such as] population growth and water consumption. Having grown up in a western ranching community, I know water is a precious thing.”
Course, consisting of six eight-foot columns, will extend across two city blocks in Denver’s River North Art District neighborhood along the South Platte River. “It’s a chronological, experiential piece that starts upstream and flows downstream, in terms of placement of the columns and the visual information they’re conveying,” Morrison explains.
“The columns closest to the mountains,” he says, relate to “precipitation, snowfall, and rainfall and how that settles into the ground.” As the installation moves downstream, the columns address “development and city-building. [As such,] the gradient from all six columns transitions from cool whites and blues to warmer reds and yellows.”
“The columns will be spaced far enough apart that you really have to make an effort [to experience the entire piece] from end-to-end. They aren’t in close [visual] proximity, so there’s a pilgrimage that needs to take place in order for them to make sense.” In this respect, the installation’s title not only references the river’s course; but Course also refers to the course of a pilgrimage and “the course of humanity.”