Ep. 1.6: The Only Question About George Morrison Is What Kind of Great Artist He Is

George Morrison wanted to be known as “a painter who happened to be an Indian.” But people always talk about him in the context of his ethnicity, even if it’s to say that he didn’t want to be talked about that way. It’s fraught. At any rate, his Collage IX: Landscape (75.24) is a pretty incredible thing to experience in a gallery.

FULL EPISODE TEXT

Hi there! I’m Keith Pille, your art pal.

We’re continuing our season one walk through a selection of objects on display at the Minneapolis institute of Art. In this episode, we’ll be talking about George Morrison’s gigantic piece titled, simply, Collage IX: Landscape. The work was assembled from driftwood and made in 1974, and its MIA accession number is 75.24.

When I started thinking about doing this show, this was the very first work of art that I knew I was going to talk about. I’m pretty sure this is my favorite work of art in the MIA, and probably in the Twin Cities. In a very real sense, this was the piece that first highjacked my eyes, grabbed my brain by the lapels, started shaking, and saying “HEY! HEY! YOU LIKE ART, DIDJA KNOW THAT, PUNK?”

So let’s start by talking about the visuals of this thing. For one thing, it’s enormous, and never let anyone tell you that size doesn’t matter when you’re talking about the impact of art on a wall. Morrison’s wood collage dominates whatever wall it’s on and overwhelms your senses. Once it’s grabbed hold of you, you can’t help but soak in the details. By its size and aspect ratio (and presence on the wall of an art museum), you expect it to be a painting. It looks like it could be a painting! (and as the MIA’s label probably tells you, Morrison liked to characterize these collages as paintings made of wood) But no, it’s hunks of wood shaved down to uniform thickness and assembled together like a wild do-it-yourself puzzle.

So it’s already awesome – in the original sense of inspiring awe – by size and by surprising materials. But then the longer you look, the more complexity emerges. The title, after all, includes the word landscape. And as you soak up the painting, a landscape emerges: you see a flat horizon line, implying water, with high, sloping hills descending into it. A round piece of wood towards the top looks like the sun getting ready to set over those hills.

If you’ve spent much time in northern Minnesota, the association clicks together pretty quickly. There’s one place in the state that’s known for its gorgeous views of big water with high, sloping hills: the north shore of Lake Superior. And guess where George Morrison is from.

I fell in love with this collage for aesthetic reasons and for the association with Lake Superior, which I had also just discovered at the time; but as I got older and learned more about George Morrison, my fascination with him just deepened my appreciation for this work.

Morrison was a member of northern Minnesota’s Ojibwe community; he was born in a place called “Chippewa City” that, sadly doesn’t exist anymore. You drive through it and see a small sign noting it as you drive north on Highway 61 out of Grand Marais. Morrison grew up there and showed an aptitude for art; when he finished high school, he attended the institution that would later become the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He then moved to New York, to paint and further study art; he also spent some time after World War II in France.

Through this time, Morrison was a very active abstract expressionist painter. The MIA has several of his works from this period (or if you do an image search for “george morrison,” a bunch come up, mixed in with his wood collages). I don’t want to sound like I’m diminishing these paintings by saying this, but they essentially looked like fairly standard mid 20th century abstract expressionist paintings, with a fairly distinct color palette. In 1970, his career pivoted when he moved back to Minnesota and began to engage more directly with his Ojibwe heritage in his art. At least a little bit. This usually took the form of depictions of Lake Superior or the Witch Tree, a tree near Grand Portage that’s important to the north shore Ojibwe community.

Morrison worked through his life to balance acknowledging his heritage without being defined by it; he liked to say that he thought of himself not as an Indian painter, but as a painter who happened to be an Indian. When, decades into his career, a Twin Cities newspaper noted that his work in a group show at the Walker Art Center didn’t include – and this is a direct quote – paintings of “buffalo, war dances or eagle feathers,” Morrison firmly replied to the paper that “An Indian doesn’t have to paint tipis to be an artist.”

In a way, I feel like I’m doing George Morrison a disservice just by bringing this up; he wanted to be thought of primarily as an artist, but inevitably now every discussion of him seems to move towards talking about him as an artist who didn’t like an ethnicity label attached to him; and talking about that is its own form of attaching a label. But on the other hand, looking at this is a great way to highlight the way in which the art world encodes white maleness as the default, with any deviation from it becoming the thing that defines the artist. Like I keep saying, this is loosening up a little bit in the past few decades, mmmmaybe, but just a little bit.

So anyway: wallow in the majesty of this wood collage, and check out George Morrison’s other works, and if you feel like spreading the word about him, I guess it’s up to you to decide if you want to say you know about a great artist, a great Minnesota artist, or a great Ojibwe artist.

Thank you for listening to Art Pal. Again, I’m Keith Pille. You can find me on Twitter at @keithpille. If you liked the show, please spread the word or pop out to itunes and leave a review. And of course, go on and check out the rest of the season, there’s a lot more art to talk about.

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