Morgan Blair’s recent work explores the balance of control and freedom in her process, manifested in a mashing up of low contrast flesh tones with wild, neon color schemes; hard edges with fuzzed out airbrush gradients; smooth, flat shapes with brush marks and rough, sandy textures; and wonky, irregular forms with geometric curves and angles. The resulting optical abstractions play on the absurd in pop culture, current events, the mall, the internet, common street trash, consumerism, and personal experience. Morgan grew up in rural Massachusetts, graduated from RISD in 2008, and lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. I started off doing freelance illustration type stuff when I moved to New York, since that was what I had just studied in college. After a few years I decided to focus on my own more abstract work instead, and work for artists on the side to make rent happen. Since then my work has come to consist of mostly abstract shapes, some referencing objects like bricks, gloves, banana peels, leaves, etc, interlocking and overlapping to optical and patterned effect. Mostly I make paintings, and murals whenever I can.
In addition to my primary body of work, for the last year or so I’ve also been making small oil paintings of stills from Seinfeld. They are often thick and painterly and somewhat realistic, making them sort of experimental, conceptual breaks for me in the context of my primary work. Also they are sort of just for fun, though they have gotten a good response from a lot of deep Seinfeld fans.
What is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other artists are struggling with these days and how do you see it developing? I’ve been trying to push my process into new territory and make more intuitive decisions while developing a piece, rather than planning out each phase of the work in my head and in sketches before approaching the final surface. That’s my current struggle I’m obsessed with—finding ways of structuring my process to allow for pockets of intuition within a system of organization. I’ve been cutting pieces of colored acetate into different shapes, laying them on an overhead projector and moving them around to come up with different compositions, and tracing them onto panels and airbrushing gradients into certain parts. That system forces me to make choices about how to develop the piece throughout the process of making it, while the acetate shape compositions provide an underlying structure to jump off of. I’ve also been mixing sand into the paint to get more variety in texture and loss of control, and I’ve been trying to get deeper into new and uncomfortable realms by starting paintings with no plan at all, to varied results.
I’m in a place where everything is a little unpredictable as far as how each new piece will unfold, which is a challenge for me because in general I gravitate towards the comfort of routine, and I like being in the meditative state of filling in a hypnotic pattern. Sometimes I question whether I should just revert to meticulous planning out, measuring, and filling in of all flat, hard edges. But with painting, the results of that process were starting to feel dead on arrival. So, I’m trying to force myself into weird situations that I don’t know how to resolve as I’m painting, to maintain some energy and weird life in the finished work.
I’ve been having this conversation with other artists too, as I’m curious if they have the same struggle and if so, how they think about it. It’s interesting to hear how people push against their inherent tightness or messyness, rules and systems they find to get the balance they want. It can be totally strategic or just happen naturally.
What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? I’ve been making a painting based on optical, repeating Magic Eye patterns. I colored in some prominent shapes in screenshots from Seinfeld episodes, repeated them in rows, traced those onto acetate, then again onto the panel from an overhead projector so the shapes got more distorted with each step. I am in the process of filling in the shapes with gradients so it looks really trippy and weird. When the panel is covered in the pattern I will probably spend a good while thinking about how to approach another mystery layer on top to bring it from being an all-over pattern to something more spacial.
In a few weeks I am going to be doing a series of murals at the Facebook offices in Manhattan. I’m going to paint some squishy shapes and pointy foliage onto elevator doors and an airbrushed sunset gradient/squiggle situation onto two columns. That should be fun.
I’m also working on a project with my uncle, who hand-cuts wooden jigsaw puzzles. We’re going to produce and release limited editions of “artist series” puzzles, each featuring the work of a different contemporary artist who makes densely patterned, optical, or otherwise visually complex work that would translate well into a crazy puzzle. We’re still in the phase of figuring out the logistics of production, but so far most everyone I’ve asked about participating seems really into it, so I’m very jazzed about the project becoming a reality.
What are you currently watching on Netflix/what’s on your Netflix queue? I pretty much stick to really dark stuff like Toddlers & Tiaras and documentaries about serial killers and cults, and then comedy. But, more than Netflix recently I’ve been watching Veep on HBO.
How has living in Brooklyn affected your art practice? I have become inspired by garbage, and highly appreciative of silence.
What materials do you use in your work and what is your process like? I use acrylic paints, some mixed with sand, some high-flow stuff for the airbrush. Sometimes puffy paint. I work mostly on wooden panels, and I go through lots of tape, contact paper, matte medium, exacto blades, etc. As of late I’ve been thinking at great length about what approach to take before I start, then quickly diverging from my plan. It’s been different each time, but often I start by filling in some swishy background color or gradient, then laying down contact paper and cutting out shapes, projected or improvised. Then I seal the edges of the shapes with matte medium, and fill it in with sandy paint, or an airbrush gradient, or both. Peel the contact paper, think about what to do next. Maybe rotate the panel, think for a long time, or impulsively add something else that either works or that I then have to figure out how to fix.
Tell us a joke. Q: What did the paparazzi ask Buffalo Bill?
A: Who are you wearing?
What artists are you interested in right now? I’m a big fan of everything I’ve seen from Trudy Benson lately, and Nick Wilkinson. In my mind they are champions of this smooth but textured, flat but dimensional, free but controlled aesthetic. DJ Rice is really prolific and constantly seems to be making new crazy images. Really intuitive looking compositions, super flat texture but often optical juxtapositions of color and pattern, hard-edged but loosey-goosey forms that are mostly abstract but reference human shapes and seemingly everything around him. Ryan Travis Christian’s work is always mind-blowing, such wild, maximal images but almost always totally limited to black and white. Nick Kuszyk has been making really rad optical abstract paintings with alternating gradients of hard-edged stripes. Alan Resnick and Dina Kelberman are geniuses. Maya Hayuk has always been a favorite, and it’s so cool to see her killing it all over the world these days, even though we don’t get to talk shit as often. She’s a hard working lady whose work ethic and fearlessness and going-for-it-ness I’ve always held as a gold standard. There are so many more people whose work I’ve been oggling recently, so that’s really just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
What is your snack/beverage of choice when working in your studio? I always get lemon-apple juice and some apple pocket thing from the farmers market on Saturday.
What do you do when you’re not working on art? When I’m not at work or at my studio, I’m riding my bike from one to the other, petting cats, watching videos from my VHS collection or adding to it, eating tacos, watching trash TV on the internet, riding around looking at art shows, taking pictures of trash, and sleeping.
What are you really excited about right now? Right now I am on art-vacation in Tel Aviv with my boyfriend who is having a show here, and I’m really excited about going to the Dead Sea tomorrow. In preparation for the trip I have watched a lot of videos on youtube of people raving about the mud there, slathering themselves in it and so on. The idea of such a buoyant body of water is exciting somehow, as is the prospect of a mud massage. I am also extremely excited about all the cats here.
If you hadn’t become an artist what do you think you’d be doing? When I was a little kid I had a notebook full of lists, including one with all the things I might like to do when I grow up. I remember having a lot of fantasies about being a hair dresser, or someone who designs novelty theme restaurants. I think “professional soccer player” was also on the list. At some point I wrote “doctor” because my best friend and I had a morbid fascination with that disaster reenactment show Rescue 911. “Artist” was also written and crossed-out and rewritten a bunch of times, but no other interests ever came close. So I guess if I wasn’t an artist I would be a freelance crime show reenactment actor.
Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you have gotten as a result of your work? A friend with epilepsy told me she can’t go to my website.
What is your ideal studio situation/workspace? This is a frequent topic of discussion. My fantasy studio would be in a two-story building consisting of a few friends’ studios and mine, and a room for hanging out that opens into a backyard. I would have a big room on the corner of the second floor, half overlooking a busy street and half overlooking the backyard and garden where cats live. There would be a bunch of giant windows with lilacs underneath, and a door that opens onto a big fire escape with vines all over it. The fire escape would be painted teal. Inside the studio, some big sturdy walls, lots of outlets, lots of shelves and some well-built racks, a few work tables and small storage carts things on wheels, maybe a lofted section with a staircase so I could go up there and chill and look at everything from above. There would be a couch with a collection of weird afghans scattered around on it, and a few milk crates with wheels so I can scoot around while working on things down low. In one corner of the studio I’d have a proper spray booth situation set up. And there would be good heat in the winter. Maybe a studio cat.