Once upon a time there was children’s art and grown-up art. Everyone knew the difference, and the twain did not meet.
Adults studied, attempted to make things “realistic” (or profound and powerful or any number of things) accompanied by excellence and deliberation. Children just had fun and made a mess.
Well, things changed, at least for the adults. Art standards became flexible, and genres mutated as if by whimsy. No one knows for certain where they are anymore, but from art’s deconstruction sites, much of the debris in galleries is worth sifting through – and occasionally something of value is unearthed.
One treasure is a new appreciation for Outsider artists – those whose unschooled and unpretentious work often looks exactly like children’s art. That’s the chief complaint and turn-off for many viewers who feel painters should take themselves quite seriously, have art degrees and write long artist’s statements (the more incomprehensible the better).
I’ll admit to loving beautiful technique and skilled artwork … curiously wrought. It leaves me with awe at human potential and wondering where the ends of our creativity and minds may yet take us. Naïve, Outsider art has little of these attributes, but it still has its own unique charm. At this moment art critics are hashing out if it has any real value other than eccentricity and quaintness.
Coming across Nicholas R Morgan’s paintings made me realize that simple and childlike art can work. I know this because I noticed his. If that seems a bit circular and illogical, think of this: Say the average American views approximately 780 man-made images per day on the Internet, television and in the real world (I think it would be much higher).
If Morgan’s paintings stopped me short to take another look (with 1-to-780 odds), then he’s succeeded to an extent already. Probably the first obligation of art is to interest and engage the viewer; missing that, you’re in trouble.
Morgan is a young, emerging painter who is about as far outside the formal art world as possible (short of Somalian refugee camps). He defines himself as a “self-taught artist” who worked as a dishwasher, roofer, factory worker, construction laborer, bartender, journalist, pizza deliverer, waiter, poet, short story writer, musician and long-haul truck driver.
Morgan told me he knows “nothing about art … the different classifications and categories” and doesn’t follow what is happening in the arts.
His themes are biblical, apocalyptic, and he clutches his subject with a visionary zeal born of his own experience and beliefs.
“Almost Harvest Time” is one of Morgan’s end-time paintings, and it’s clear that he considers that event to be close.
Quoting Jesus, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few,” Morgan’s work almost entirely relates directly to the Bible – full of proto-faces, a “cloud of witnesses” and paths leading to a grand, almost Sphinx-like being (I assume is God or Christ). Cornrows of figures lie in beds resembling graveyards and fields simultaneously. The dead in Christ shall rise first
When I asked what motivated him to choose these themes, he referred me to his “Fighting Evil One Painting at a Time.”
“This painting pretty much sums up what I’m trying to do with my art,” he explained, but left it at that.
Morgan prefers the viewer see and interpret his paintings without his help, to find their own meaning: “Art [doesn't] need to be explained too much in words,” he adds.
Giving interpretation a whirl myself, I see a clear type of the artist as a saint (with halo) beside what may be … a giant squid? Or it may be the Earth straddled by Satanic forces of evil. Undeniable though, is the joy and lack of fear in the face of Morgan’s saint as he looks to his dark workload.
In the case of “Fighting Evil One Painting at a Time,” I appreciate his explanatory title and the verse he sent along: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:11).
“Powerful delusions and lies” are a booming business right now in America, hopefully not to become a full monopoly soon. I congratulate anyone who takes them on in any medium by any means.
Until recently Morgan’s life was a collage of alcoholism, drug use and mental illness. At 29 he survived a subdural hematoma and brain surgery. Originally Morgan was able to paint under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“It took me to an empty dark place … with ugly, twisted visions,” he recalls.
In the short time Morgan has deeply known Christ, he overcame all these former addictions and woes. His victories echo through his paintings and are a form of pleading with the rest of world to come clean.
“I was painting for the wrong team,” he acknowledges now.
Two pieces are startling: “The Ladder of Addiction leads Down to Insanity” is clear enough by its incorporated text. Grotesque figures with jarring, meth-head, bloodshot eyes continue to smile at the viewer, still dripping blood from their veins.
His “Meet Albert” is a rough-looking character who solemnly eyes us. He seems decrepit somehow. When I asked for background, Morgan explained that it was Albert Fish, one of “history’s worst serial killers.” Labeled across the head is the message, “We are all sinners- Romans 3:23.”
He isn’t identifying with Fish but making a point: “God is always ready and willing to forgive us if we repent and forgive others,” regardless of the depth of our depravity.
I’m particularly drawn to his “Taking our City Back.” Here Morgan uses complex, repeat design elements, great colors and symbolism and slightly more sophisticated painting techniques. It’s his joyous take on the dark subject of sin, death and escaping judgment. Barred cages are emptied and smiling faces hover over the cityscape, now free.
He sent some Scripture and thoughts along about this painting.
“Stop idolatry!” Morgan begins, sounding like the prophet Jeremiah and warning artists against idolizing their talents. Idols may have changed names over the last 3,000 years, but the problem is still here. Substitute wealth, fame, security or any person for God and it doesn’t bode well.
Referring to Nineveh, the city God spared after repentance, Morgan contrasts a recent visit to a tattoo parlor and his repulsion at the “demonic looking things” they specialized in.
Undoubtedly there is a tattoo parlor or two among the barred windows in “Taking our City Back.”
Morgan is already following in the footsteps of painter-preachers such as the renowned Howard Finster and Rev. Samuel Phillips, although he has only been studying his Bible seriously for a few years. Their work even slightly resembles the other, but I doubt it was ever studied. Perhaps this is only the expression of the childlike spirit and faith Jesus asked us to cultivate? Not a theory, just a thought.
Nicholas Morgan paints so that people will look at his work and open their Bibles to “seek the truth for themselves.” Unlike Marshall McLuhan whose media was the message, for Morgan the message is everything and the medium doesn’t much matter.
When Nicholas is not reading his Bible, he is painting and can be found here.