'KILL ALL MONSTERS'
CHEMICAL WARFARE, I wrote in large letters next to Alex Gene Morrison’s name in a notebook from 2002. It is all I need to recall the painting he was exhibiting - a queasily coloured image in oil called ‘I see dragons in your eyes’ depicting a hooded form marching through radioactive slime. Why I chose to describe it in this way has, I think, something to do with the time and place. Morrison was among a group of artists working out of a makeshift studio/exhibition space in Dalston who painted the motifs of their youth; skulls, arcade games, schlock horror and thrash metal (co-incidentally Chemical Warfare is a song by Slayer) – the detritus of cold war politics and the computing revolution which skate culture appropriated in the 1980s.
Until the new Millennia, the 1980s had been in aesthetic fall out, but now artists were reviving certain aspects of this bombastic era. There were Kirsten Glass’ slick collages inspired by the David Salle School of glamour and Luke Caulfield’s urban teenagers wearing their allegiances to Death Metal on their t-shirts. Exhibitions like the Barbican’s ‘Game On’, presented a considered historical view of the video game and the Japan pavilion at the Venice Biennale gave itself over to the golden arches. Even so, the idea of Donkey Kong, Gremlins, and that particular 80s palette which can only be described as Ocean Pacific, still engendered a certain amount of scepticism. For many, this renewed interest by young artists in such 80s icons as Pac-Man, was viewed by the gallery going public with the nonplussed apprehension of coming across a Zombie and finding they had no wall to jump over.
Morrison stopped painting in the colours of a low-budget video rental store a few years ago, yet some of the motifs he used from that time have remained. In particular the oddly-formed prehistoric faces, one of which in ‘Skull’ is just discernable in the gloom of the canvas like a cave painting weakly illuminated by the glow of a dying flashlight. The face could be a crude self-portrait or a Jungian archetype, but equally the primitivism could refer to the rudimentary beings developed in the 1980s in early video games.
Another image Morrison has used before is the amorphous form in ‘Black Bile’, which is as close to what I imagine the parasitic extraterrestrial in ‘The Thing’ is. He was nominated for the John Moores Painting Prize in 2009 with a version of this image, except here the paint is as glossy as shellac and the brush marks mirror the groves of a 12inch record. Like all of the works in this new series, Morrison has reduced his palette almost entirely to black, purple and red, colours favoured by Heavy Metal, and it is no co-incidence that certain themes embraced by this subculture - witchcraft, Nazis, crucifixes - are alluded to in Morrison’s work.
I get the feeling Morrison is finally beginning to enjoy his black period. He has often described his art as tragicomic and has always been drawn to the dumber aspects of the subjects he paints. He will go for the melting faces and pickled corpses in horror movies over the spine chilling atmosphere any day and the same goes for this new series, which ironically sees Morrison’s lighter side emerge from the rather severe abstracts of a couple of years ago. Both ‘Raw Sorcery (RAM)’ and ‘Arise’ could easily sit on the back cover of a Metallica album, the sexual overtones of ‘Raw Sorcery’ (a medieval battering ram bursting through a lightening bolt) are as blatant as the Satanic crucifix is in ‘Arise’ and as a result borrow from the dopey humour that saved Thrash Metal from developing the self-aggrandizing masturbatory excesses of their Prog rock predecessors.
The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the appropriation of swastikas and other fascist symbols in Heavy Metal is a way of ‘de-semanticizing’ totalitarian ideology, essentially neutralising fascism by emphasizing its own absurdities. The German artist Anslem Kiefer achieved a similar thing in the late 1960s, when he photographed himself in mock-heroic poses giving the Nazi salute by public monuments.
It is no great surprise that Heavy Metal emerged in the right wing era of Regan and Thatcher but that it continues to be thought of as proto-fascist is. In ‘Shadow’ and ‘Sinister’ Morrison presents two paintings that could be said to confront this paradox. The former depicts a black right hand evocative of cave paintings and healing Shamanic rituals, the latter depicts a red slash against a black canvas that runs unusually from top left to bottom right. This is sometimes called a ‘sinister diagonal’ from the Latin word sinistra, which originally meant ‘left’ before it came to mean ‘evil’ or ‘unlucky’. Morrison paints this accursed shard in a primary red, liberating it from the crepuscular background. It could be an act of redemption, and that’s important, because there’s nothing a Metal band loves more than the deliverance of salvation.
Jessica Lack 2014