Catalogue essay by Mali Morris RA for Marilyn Hallam's exhibition Other Things, at Teesside University, Middlesbrough, March 2014
Abstract painter Mali Morris was elected a Royal Academician in 2010. she has held over 35 solo shows worldwide, and has been included in numerous group shows, at the Barbican, Hayward Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, Whitworth Gallery Manchester, Museum of Wales Cardiff, as well as a number overseas.
I have always admired and been fascinated by the intricate, slow way that Marilyn builds her paintings. Looking in on her various studios over the years I marvel at the layers of drawing, tracing and photocopying, the collaging and reconstruction that goes on. This exploratory work accumulates and is sifted through, well before she begins to paint on canvas. That is what intrigues me - how her search leads to resolution, her preparation to realisation. The completed paintings are airy, with light flowing through them, and for all their complexity they are vividly direct, immediately radiant.
The relationship of drawing to painting is of great interest to visual artists, be they figurative, abstract, or indifferent to those categories. In Verbena in Sky Marilyn describes with line and colour the way a delicate tangle of flowers grows high on a balcony, in front of ornate iron railings. A long way below, in the park. dogs and their owners are visible, tiny but identifiable. Flat rectangles of various blues, greens and an intense red were laid down as the first stage of this composition. There would have been studies of the layers of space glimpsed through foliage, strategies for how different kinds of drawing in paint could mesh with the patchwork of ground-colour, to become one with it. After our first encounter with the glow and filigree of the finished work there is an invitation to slow down and take in its richness. Seeing how it all hangs together is completely absorbing - it contains movement in its stillness, is organised as well as abundant, and it holds the attention for as long as one can look.
Motifs recur in Marilyn's work, echoing fascinations that painters have always had - a window that takes the gaze outside, or the mirror that brings space and light. and perhaps a figure, back into a room. In Collector we are given the colour-key of the painting at centreleft, a still life on a couple of tables. A pink box-file has a lime-green gauze ribbon clipped to its top edge. Propped against it is a postcard, a drawing of Ariel the flower fairy, spreading her wings. A skill and talent for depiction can put us inside an illusionistic interior and describe its details with accuracy, but reading this painting, how it was made - the various greens arrived at through many glazes, the different whites stepping steadily backwards to the final light of the reflected window - all this gives us so much more. The layers and shifts of colour move us around in time and pictorial space, as if forever.
There is a double intimacy in these paintings that I find strange and distinctive. The domestic interior, with its array of objects loved and used and looked-at, sets a personal, almost autobiographical tone. But what we also have is a construction in paint on a flat surface, which has involved the artist in a process of intense scrutiny and analysis, thorough, but intent on keeping the painting fresh, alive and luminous. The activity of looking has been questioned, the process of seeing fragmented and re-made, in order to understand more of what painting tells us about painting, at the same time as it tells of the world. What we are shown is a small part of the world, a table top, or a balcony, but the painting of it reaches far into thought and experience. The commitment to breaking down pictorial language and putting it back together again is clearly evident, but not fetishised. It is an exploration, and it has been shared with us. There is detachment in the method, but passion shows in the conclusion.
Each time I see these paintings and rediscover their achievement I find in them again their intelligence and their beauty, and I feel grateful for what they offer. It's good to think that they will be looked at and enjoyed by so many others during the coming year.