By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, October 2020
“Characteristics of a squalorous lifestyle include daydrinking, broiling steak after midnight, polyamory, throwing trash into the street, punching holes in walls, telling complaining neighbors to fuck themselves and having no respect for the well-being of others, generally flouting societal norms and taking no responsibility for one's actions.”
-- Urban Dictionary
“Give me squalor or give me death!”
-- Unattributed Quotation
An artful and feral scavenger on the make, Shaun Morin sweeps the floor of the popular culture for the iconic gold dust that is spread across the surface of his work. Those gravid louche images resonate in our collective unconscious like restless, unruly and profane archetypes.
Morin, based in Gimli, Manitoba, reconstitutes these in layered vertical and lateral palimpsests that are maze-like in their mien and loaded with sparks, raucous humour, flashes of déjà vu and sundry avatars -- to instruct, beguile and delight us. His art of leveraged adjacency is one that runs the gamut from the most quotidian objects and things, bridged by intricately worked pen and ink drawings, to worthy icons secured from several different worlds.
Morin– also known by his street name the slomotion – has executed a wide range of work, from wild and rollicking oil paintings on canvas to mixed media on paper, to hand-made booklets and black & white zines. In all this work, he acts in defiance of tidy ideas of holism in favour of fracture in his facture. On the threshing floor of painting, as it were, his harvest of signs is progressively winnowed, slowly reaching the threshold where the work is deemed complete. If the compositions are fractured, they reflect a very topical reality. This work speaks to ADHD and OCD, nostalgia, streaming video, avatars, computer software, multi-channel access – and compromised attention spans. However, the longer we spend within his demented storyboards, the more we recognize the presence of fathomless, uncharted dimensions that lie beneath.
His compositions are interlocked mazes with a super- abundance of images. There is a family resemblance to a comic-strip treatment but with a very different logic and intent. Morin is the curator inside his own paintings: collections of images, patchwork aggregates of juxtaposed motifs, scenes and figures all clamour for attention there.
I say ‘interlocked’ rather than ‘interconnected’ because his vignettes stand out before they recede in. By collating disparate elements on the pictorial surface, the artist proceeds without a given serial order. Everything enjoys frontality and equality, however squalorous and inassimilable. The imagery spreads out to the four edges of the plane like a dark contagion with an indeterminate destination.
Morin thus disrupts his own narrative structures in advance of the fact, and this lends a sense of radical indeterminancy to the whole, as though this work was less modelled on Looney Tunes (although I swear I saw Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck do a cameo there) than a glorious fever dream.
A given work may present scores of vignettes, a cascade both involute and vivacious. Like puzzle pieces that enjoy vertical depth, these imagistic fragments achieve both resonant surface presence and depth. The staggered presentation in his stagecraft encourages weighing the particularity of each and assessing their individual contributions to the whole. They are fraught with visual puns, unlikely juxtapositions at all angles and axes and rambunctious avatars. They take inspiration as much from comic strips by Robert Crumb as from the loopy late narrative paintings of Philip Guston.
His narratives are like sunken grids, reconstructed shipwrecks on the ocean floor of painting’s present tense. Morin’s visual narratives are at once poetic and profound and rife with outtakes from his own edgy and unique personal iconography. Combining this signature language with his constant and varied culling of source imagery, Morin's paintings provide the viewer with endless, scattered narratives that effortlessly draw us in. It is we, his viewers, who assume the role of the true protagonists inside his remarkable work.
Morin is an unapologetic sponge and imagistic grafter of a painter. He is an unlikely sentinel of a culture in its decline, a picker’s picker who has spoken candidly of his artful scavenging as a continuing search for eye-catching particularity. He is a like a magpie on the prowl for shiny objects to feather his nest.
Like memory jars, these paintings and works on paper are fully packed with pickings from the popular culture, high and low. Provocative vignettes plucked from an inventory that is eidetically rich and virtually limitless, they are profane but never vulgar, provocative but never pornographic. Still, they resonate at frequencies well beyond 18,000 waves or cycles per second. Be warned! Those high frequencies can inflict severe damage on those of tender sensibility. Morin conjures multiple depths and dimensions all of which jostle for supremacy within the picture plane. Resulting tension lends the surface a distinct edge, a radiance, if you will, a raw energy; what he calls, in a word,pulse.
Morin’s specific genius is an ability to keep his thumb pressing on this energy, this vital life pulse, by placing his culled snippets, vignettes, ink drawings and so forth in bold, jarring adjacency. There are no apparent rifts between visual markers in the overall field. They seem to melt into one another together, and their impact increases rather than lessens the longer we spend with them.
The artist’s enviable finesse with juxtaposition rules, and is so sophisticated that we don’t see the fractures for the seamlessness. He is a rare chameleon and assemblage master of a painter -- the Yoda, the Jedi Master of juxtaposition. There is no prescribed reading strategy for his works. Whether one follows the juxtaposed images diagonally or laterally, each adjacent image produces a sort of electric shock when considered in relation to its neighbour. Making sense of his assembled multitudes means following his juxtaposed vignettes to the point where a secret order, an underlying logic, a hidden fundament is discernible just beneath the surface almost within reaching distance, in one sense, but one whole cosmos removed, in another.
Morin assembles his vignettes in expansive visual clusters with furtive cunning. They have a spectral cartography all their own. His visual space is intricate and complex and ruled by juxtapositions of a weird and rare telepathic, maybe telekinetic, tenor. His grids seem to take a cue from videogames with their secret levels and Easter eggs popping out of the paintwork like tasty, nourishing surprises discovered along the way. The journey is unremittingly inwards. The deeper you travel into these works, the more you learn, and the less likely you are to turn away.
Morin’s visual spaces are not linear labyrinths which one can physically relate to one’s body. They develop from the tension between recognizable and purely abstract images. The paintings are like energised games of Snakes and Ladders in 3d and screenshots from old but august videogames like Pacman, the maze arcade game developed and released by Namco in 1980.
They feed – and feed on – our nostalgia for a marginally more innocent era in the same way that the TV series Stranger Things does. They are not ambulatory like Pacman but they still rock on through the bottommost archives of the culture. They shimmy. They vibrate. They never resolve into vitrification or stasis and do not conform to the conventions of the pictorial spaces they seemingly espouse, whether chromatically or compositionally. Instead, they are subversive labyrinths, miniature junkyards, minutely worked and built laterally, and diagonally, with flair and brio.
Morin’s influences are many, as one might expect, but some of the usual suspects include videogames, Robert Crumb, Lil Nemo, Philip Guston, the German Neo-Expressionists, street and bathroom stall graffiti, constellation and terrestrial maps, instruction manuals, biology textbooks and so on. Anything that catches his eye as potential fodder for regurgitation is grist for his mill.
The narratives are loose and open and louche, and the surfaces hyperactive. Every square inch of the plane is treated as a piece in a puzzle being laid out before our eyes. A restless, nomadic energy informs all his hyperactive surfaces. This invested energy is reciprocated with a welcoming frisson. It is as though his grids are like mirrors in which we are asked to take stock of our own reflections. They are layered artefacts the optic can play within, a sort of Oculus Rift for the engaged viewer or the palantír, the magical artefact in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, a crystal ball used for both communication and as a means of seeing beings and events in other parts of the world or in the distant past or the future. Morin’s work is such a mirror that gives us insights into the interior of the self.
He is allergic to the white space of the canvas but appreciates its potential a reception zone for imagistic inundation, and he aptly calls it “a perfect middle zone between fear and love.” Every parry and feint he makes with his brush is a trigger for tweaking another chapter in his ongoing storytelling endeavour – a collision of freeform and flow narrative and preconceived ideas in union which results in, as he says, “a mysterious poetry”.
The work is a heady mix of wry humour, from playful scrapes to wilful mayhem and beyond. In their earlier incarnation, his various protagonists – one might better call them perps -- are often observed being caught between moments of intimate emotional excitation at the heart of their life world and culture. More recently, Morin has incorporated patterns, cosmic paths, elemental phenomena, and a bevy of geometrical puzzles into his toolbox.
His structured environments stem from the artist’s abiding interest in the limitations of the body posed within a physical or metaphysical realm wherein invisible energies percolate like electricity in an active Tesla coil. These energies protect the content of his louche grids and hold his universe together within a control barrier inside which everything is always already locked down.
These energies verge on occult anatomy and numinous aura. Most readers will know that the concept of ‘aura’ was famously employed by Walter Benjamin in the last century. In his influential 1936 essay entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he conceived aura as a quality integral to an artwork that cannot be communicated through mechanical reproduction techniques – such as photography. That is rather less resonant here. But if we look back further than Benjamin we find a more fitting definition. The concept of aura was developed much earlier by Charles Webster Leadbeater, a member of the mystic Theosophical Society. Leadbeater believed he had the capacity to use clairvoyance to conduct scientific investigations.
In 1910, Leadbeater developed his conception of auras, incorporating the Tantric notion of chakras in his book The Inner Life. In 1977, American esotericist Christopher Hills published the book Nuclear Evolution: The Rainbow Body, which offered an updated version of Leadbeater’s occult anatomy."perceptual distortions, illusions, and hallucinations might promote belief in auras... Psychological factors, including absorption, fantasy proneness, vividness of visual imagery, and after-images, might also be responsible for the phenomena of the aura." Neurologists argue that some people are able to perceive auras because of intra cerebral effects within the brain: epilepsy, migraines, or the influence of psychedelic drugs such as amanita muscaria and lab-produced LSD. This is more relevant than Benjamin’s concept for understanding Morin’s work, as his paintings are like energy vortices that suck viewers inside wholesale, and reorient them accordingly.
To suggest that this work with its feverish grids of disconcerting vignettes possesses something like aura in its occult sense is not as much of a stretch as it sounds. By scavenging the culture stem to stern, Morin has decanted worthy icons that are instantly recognizable, even if many of them come from a 1960s universe, and their juxtapositions and internal gravity is such that we linger within them. They connect to our cultural memory, even our short-term cultural memories. It is precisely this that helps explain their appeal.
This auratic reading is heightened by the fact that Morin has deepened or ‘ignited’ his palette mensurably over the years, so that his brighter colours seem even brighter now and the light and dark colours feel lighter and darker than before. He may have taken some important lessons from an avatar by the name of Henri Matisse. His palette is but the obtrusive end of a slowly burning fuse.
This work is like a clairvoyant’s kaleidoscope. I mean, an optical instrument with two or more reflecting surfaces tilted to each other at an angle, so that one or more aspects of objects on one end of the mirrors are seen as a regular symmetrical pattern when viewed from the other end, due to repeated reflection, but with occult magnifying properties.
Morin’s work also give us glimpses into past and future, and the nostalgia they induce is balanced by their family resemblance to premonitory dreams. His vignettes are akin to the loose, coloured pieces of glass or other transparent (and/or opaque) materials to be reflected into the viewed pattern. Rotation of the cell induces movement in the materials, resulting in an ever-changing view being presented. Like other optical toys, including the praxinoscope, the grid-bound vignettes seem to be from an open set which somehow revolve without repeating themselves as in an infinity loop or Moebius strip.
Shaun Morin aka ‘the slomotion’ offers us a frenzied critical perspective on the popular culture, past and present, in an art that deeply questions the folklore of the moment from whence it issues and in which we find ourselves now so hopelessly enmeshed. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.