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Negative Visions, Pastoral Beauty: An Excursion into Paul Morrison’s Plant World


There’s a weird-looking black and white flora of magical proportions proliferating in Paul Morrison’s paintings, sculptures, and wall works: gigantic blossoms, stems, and leaves reach into the sky, while microscopically tiny trees sprout up from the ground. Morrison’s work constitutes a reversal of traditional landscape painting: instead of depicting things naturalistically and true to detail, the London artist portrays the plant world as an almost abstract artificial space brimming with silhouette-like, sharp-edged structures. Ossian Ward paid him a visit.




Black Dahlias, 2004
©Paul Morrison
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

In the hushed library of the Royal Horticultural Society in London, eager gardeners and green-thumbed society members leaf through the extensive collection of books dedicated to every imaginable species of flora and flower. This may not be a typical source of inspiration for a contemporary artist, but for Paul Morrison, a place such as the Lindley Library, with its antique volumes and collection of 22,000 original illustrations, constitutes a mine of ideas, images, and possibilities for works of art.


Feld, 1998
©Paul Morrison
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London



Paul Morrison, 2006-05-17
Photo Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London


Morrison is not a horticulturalist or even an avid gardener himself; in fact, his enthusiasm stretches only as far as being "quite partial to dandelions – they make me smile whenever I see them – but that’s about it." Yet he has amassed an encyclopedic collection of the different ways in which plant life has been depicted throughout history and culture that ranges from botanical illustrations to movie clips. Morrison’s pictorial databank of plant life is his personal artistic repository from which he selects the elements for his work; it is nothing short of a virtual xylotheque, a digital library of diverse woodland species from trees to their leaves, flowers, roots, fruits, seeds, and twigs.

Trail, 2000
Deutsche Bank Collection
©Paul Morrison
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London


Although his titles often refer to botanical terms such as Cambium, Sepal , or Amyloplast, his obsession is not with nature or the plants themselves, but with "chasing imagery", as he calls it. "I have quite a voracious appetite for looking at imagery, and am always looking to broaden the database." His roving eye is currently fixated on 15th and 16th century woodcuts and prints, but in the past his work was recognizable for its cartoon-like register, as in Trail of 2000, the painting that represents Morrison in the Deutsche Bank Collection. "Conflating images from different timeframes is an intuitive process," he says, "and is also a way to broaden the chronology of the work and make it more elusive."
Sphere. 1998/9
Wall painting, John Soane's Museum, London
©Paul Morrison
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London



Many of the botanical illustrations that Morrison appropriates are regarded in their field as scientific documents and were not conceived as artistic statements in their own right. Indeed, any beauty or pleasure we experience from even the most delicate pencil drawings or hand-tinted lithographs are only by-products of their representational function as botanical illustration. For example, one of Albrecht Dürer’s immaculate flower studies, an Iris of 1503 now in the Kunsthalle Bremen, was drawn exactly to scale in his quest for the utmost verisimilitude.


Cyathium, 2004
©Paul Morrison
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

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