Seren Morey: Growing Roses with Thorns

Seren Morey, Stranger Thing, 2017, Ultralight, dispersions, pumice, and glitter on panel15x10x4 in, photo courtesy of the artist

Seren Morey is a maximalist . Her lush mixed media painting- reliefs resemble mutated life forms in the process of proliferation – organic and artificial, funny and freakish, decorative and disorienting. Seren Morey shares with Art Spiel experiences that brought her to art, including some particularly fascinating encounters; in-depth know-how paint-making and painting processes; and reflections on her development as an artist.

AS: You graduated from Bard and before going for your MFA at Pratt, you worked for Kiki Smith. Tell me a bit about these experiences, me a bit about yourself, and what brought you to art.

Seren Morey: I come from a family of artists in Massachusetts. When I went to Bard, I decided I wanted to do something different. I became a literature major. The summer after my freshman year, I went on a backpacking trip through Europe with some friends and fell in love with the art I saw in the museums we visited. I just remember my chest being pulled and saying to myself, “this is what I have to do.” I switched to a fine arts major sophomore year and the painful struggle to find a voice began.

I started by painting fruits, specifically pears in exaggerated ways which everyone saw as phallic, but I remember it as just being drawn to organic forms and landing on pears. At Bard they do something called moderation, where sophomore year you do a presentation of your work before a panel of your professors who decide whether you can continue in your chosen major. I was extremely nervous and at the end the comment was “the work is weak and you are a little behind, but we are going to pass you.” I was relieved, but also devastated at being told the work was weak but hey, I was a student. Robert Storr, who was a visiting professor at the time, said something to the effect of “you have to make a tremendous amount of crap before you get to the good stuff, so get busy,”

I took those words to heart and got busy making more weak work. At one point, when Robert Storr was in my studio, he gave a big sigh and started showing me some color mixing techniques. A little humiliating, but also quite educational. My senior year, Kiki Smith came to give a talk about her work and it knocked my socks off. I was dealing with a heavy dose of unreckoned trauma from childhood at the time and I related to the visceral nature of her work. I jumped my fear, reached out to her and asked if I could intern upon graduation, and she said “yes.”

I used to go down to her place on Ludlow Street in the early 90’s, which was a little sketchy back then. I’d ring the bell and they would throw down a key in a piece of newspaper and I’d make my way up the many crooked, creaky flights of steps. I remember the fresh ginger tea boiling on the stove (I still make it) and the cooing doves in the window. Kiki was an amazing presence, disarming and affable, but intimidating in her energy and talent. At a certain point she asked me if I would model for some of her sculptures and I got coated in vaseline and wrapped in plaster bandages while breathing through straws in my nose. When that stuff hardens and they remove it it’s like being born. I remember being completely exhausted afterwards and having to lie down all day, but it was an amazing experience. Some of my favorites we did were “Lilith”, which is crawling up the wall of the Met, and “Bloodpool”, where I am lying in fetal position, made out of a blood colored wax with spine exposed. I still completely identify with that raw image. She used to melt the beeswax on the roof and coat the plaster cast that was later removed. The beeswax had an incredible smell and fleshy quality that I loved and it led me to begin experimenting with encaustic.

Seren morey, Flesh and Bone, 2010, ultralight, pigment dispersions, and thread on canvas, 34×28 in, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In your web you title your statement as “PROCESS.” It is evident throughout your work that you have developed an incisive technique and a rigorous painting process. This process seems to drive your work in many ways. What is the genesis of your 3-d painting and what would you like to share about your technique / process?

Seren Morey: When I was a small child we had an “art room” with all kinds of stuff and my father said he would find me in there in the wee hours of the morning. He would ask me what I was doing and I would say, “I like to make.” I still remember that quiet, centered and playful feeling of making and it is the place I always try to connect with when working. Those craft mixed with drawing and painting beginnings were probably the start of my interest in using multiple materials. When I started formally studying painting I worked with oil and the traditional palette we all get in school.

Post Bard, I went to the Art Students League, built up a portfolio of more distorted fruit, and applied to Pratt for the MFA program. By the time I graduated from Pratt in 1996 I had finally started to hit on my voice. My thesis show was entirely abstract and was comprised of oil paintings, floor to ceiling hanging sculpture made from my hair and wire, cut paper pieces that scaled the wall and paintings incorporating sewing and soft sculpture with sculpted encaustic forms. The recurring form in my work had become a wormlike shape that I saw as a basic origin of life. I started working more with encaustic but would incorporate other elements such as glass and reflective areas of a water based urethane.

Around 2000 I started doing fully carved encaustic paintings where I would heat and reheat, add and remove wax in a negative mark making process.The paintings were becoming more and more sculptural, but there were limits to the material in its fragility with some of the rose shapes I had started creating. I was working at Guerra Paint part time and began using one of the binders called Ultralight, a textured acrylic mixed with micro glass balloons that looked like marshmallow fluff. One of my earliest Ultralight pieces was “Flesh and Bone” in 2010. This material allowed for coming off the surface up to 6 inches or more. I did some large cross over paintings, “Protozoic Pulse” and “Cells and Sinew” in 2013 that had encaustic areas adjacent to Ultralight areas and later began focusing only on Ultralight with other waterbased binders, often with added glass beads.

AS: Tell me more about how you use glass beads and sewing in your work.

Seren Morey: I have a definite affinity for decoration and adornment and there is just something about glass that I am attracted to. I did a solo show at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery in 2013 that had a good selection of work reflective of the aforementioned cross over period. There were a lot of cut and sewn pieces incorporating Ultralight in that show, my favorite being “Spindle”. In these types of works the canvas is stretched and cut with many negative shapes that are then sewn after each cut shape. This keeps the canvas as a taut armature with transparencies. Sewing has always made an intermittent appearance in my work. As Louise Bourgeois said, “the act of sewing is a process of emotional repair.” I definitely see it as such. In the sewn works, Ultralight was thickened, stretched and pulled like taffy in the areas that still had canvas. Glass beads add a textural,reflective and decorative element which is often subverted by the paint layering. The work has always been about the movement of life and growth below the surface of perception, but also decay. I have occasionally had periods where I will make representational insect paintings. Insects are beautiful, complex and a little creepy and sadly we are losing many of them due to climate change. Clearly I have a lot of interests that shoot off in multiple directions with various materials, but the hope is that they all speak to the idea of connection at a molecular level.

Seren Morey, Fang, 2016, Ultralight, dispersions and glass beads on panel, 8x8x4 in, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In that text you indicate that your most recent works have evolved into biological and botanical hybrids, dark and humorous at the same time. Can you reflect on this evolution, the idea behind this recent body of work, in context of your previous work?

Seren Morey: The more recent evolution of my work which began around 2013, relates less strictly to the biological and is more connected to the botanical. The Ultralight feels like frosting and in 2014 I started piping out the paint with a pastry bag. The level of play increased tenfold and the paintings changed dramatically – from monochromatic and referential of human biology, to colorful and inspired by animals and insects. When I first started using a pastry bag, the shapes coming out looked so goofy I began laughing. I was having so much fun and went with it. The bright color followed and I decided that I’m going to make these things as wild and crazy as they can be. “Fang” is a good example of what I see as an over-the-top painting. They evolve and grow out of themselves until they seem as if they can not go further. Like fractals, they could just keep repeating and growing ad infinitum if I let them.

I am interested in how basic patterns repeat themselves in nature, particularly branching and spirals. The draw of the spiral is probably universal as we are all taking part in that movement at every moment, by standing on a rotating planet orbiting the sun within the rotating Milky Way. I was having visions of making paintings that were like a bed of roses. One of my earliest rose paintings was a large encaustic piece titled “Roses, Ghosts and Galaxies” referencing the repetition of the spiral pattern. When I started using the rose petal cake tip the paintings of course became that much more floral and botanical.

Roots, thorns and spikes made an appearance to tone down the decorative aspects and lend more of a foreboding mood. I have a strong sense for the macabre and like incorporating darker elements but also don’t want to be too serious – enter the humor. I’ve made a couple surrealist sci-fi type pieces recently with big eyeballs that are pretty funny. “Stranger Thing” and “Watcher”. It’s important to not take things, life, paintings, too seriously. I’m trying to work on that in my daily practice, which is tough because I’ve been stuck in fight or flight mode for most of my life.

Seren Morey, Hansel and Gretel, 2016,Ultralight,dispersions and glass beads on panel, 8x8x4in., photo courtesy of the artist
Seren Morey, Vortex, 2019, Ultralight and dispersions on canvas, 70x50x4 in, photo courtesy of Madelyne Harmon 

AS: In your interview with Christina Massey in WoArt you say that you begin your work intuitively but also looking at images online. Can you elaborate more on how you begin a piece?

Seren Morey: Most often I will just go into the studio and sit there for about 30 minutes, looking at the current work that is around me. I wait to get attracted to something in a previous painting that will lead to a new painting, usually breaking out in a new direction. New directions are sometimes great and sometimes not, but I allow myself the experimentation. It’s good to be risky with your work and it’s always interesting to see what happens. Occasionally I will look up images based on an attraction to an idea like Zebra patterns, snakes, eyes, neurons, plant cells, plants in general, galaxies, anything microscopic, it’s all inspirational and fascinating.

AS: Let’s take “Heart Murmur I” and “Heart Murmur II” as examples – what is behind this duo and why “I” and “II”?

Seren Morey: I work on multiple paintings at a time and will do diptychs or triptychs to allow more than one surface to work out an idea. It’s hard to pinpoint what is behind these two recent paintings exactly, but I feel that they are connected to fairy tales. This renewed interest in fairy tales came about through having my daughter and re-entering into that magical world which I had always loved. Fairytales were always an escapist outlet in my childhood and I have welcomed it back. There is a darkness to fairytales that is so true to life, but also an optimism based in magical thinking.

For instance, the scene in Sleeping Beauty where the thickets and thorns are overgrowing everything as the kingdom sleeps, is a potent image, referencing the power of nature to overcome and overtake everything in its path. The idea of being trapped, but also fed, by a network of thorny veins is happening, particularly in “Heart Murmur I”. That painting feels like I put my heart on the wall. It’s one of the few paintings that I refuse to part with. “Heart Murmur II” has beach glass incorporated. Beach glass has a history, and has been physically softened by time and the beating of the ocean. I’ve done quite a few beach glass paintings over the years.

Seren Morey, Heart Murmur I, 2017,Ultralight,dispersions,glassbeads and urethane on panel,7x7x3.5 in., photo courtesy of the artist

AS: On the De Buck Gallery site it says that you are “interested in how emotions form neurological networks within the human body.” Can you elaborate how that informs your work?

Seren Morey: I’ve had my fair share of trauma and it informs the work. Images of neural forests are incredibly beautiful and compelling. I am fascinated by how formless memories and emotions are somehow housed in these physical structures. People with PTSD have set neural pathways formed by an initial trauma that can be triggered and lit up by any stress, causing an exaggerated fear response.

AS: It also indicates there that your work includes self-portrait. Can you talk more about what “self-portrait” means to you and how it is implemented in your work?

Seren Morey: Certain paintings, particularly “Heart Murmur I” feel like I put a piece of me on the wall. An early large encaustic painting titled “Rampage” is a portrait of my own neural brain network when passionate and angry. I have a crazy temper. I got a lot of that out when I was singing heavy metal 15 years ago. Âme, (French for soul) is a more recent peaceful, self portrait and there are a few others.

Seren Morey, Spindle, 2013, Ultralight,dispersion and thread on canvas, 24×20 in., photo courtesy of Sandra Casti

AS: When I look at your body of work, I sense that you grapple with 2 contrasting impulses: an “All-over” and a distinct figure/ground . What is your take on that and where are you now?

Seren Morey: That is very true, I do grapple with that. My go-to inclination is to do the “all-over” but I need variety and I don’t want to have the same approach every time. Doing the figure/ground successfully is more challenging, and not always effective for me, but I keep returning to it. I have always had a desire to interject these reflective pools into my paintings. I’m not 100% sure what that is about and they always get mixed reviews, but I keep doing it. One of my earliest examples of that is “Oasis in the Flesh” from 1999 and definitely another “self-portrait”. Those pools are a quiet, reflective, infinite space that feels like home. Lee Bontecou incorporates space voids and is the artist I am most drawn to. I may always alternate between the all-over and figure/ground ways of working.

AS: Your work can be read as “Maximalist”. Thoughts on that?

Seren Morey: Sometimes I wish I could be a minimalist like one of my favorite artists, Agnes Martin, but I am definitely, most of the time, a maximalist. It just doesn’t feel done until I do it to death. I am going for depth and a feeling of mystery below the surface and that can only be achieved, for me, by layering up and density of forms. Forest through the trees. Jackson Pollock was a strong early influence and I have a lot of older work that was a heavy buildup of drip lines. Some other layered line artists I respond to are Terry Winters, Mark Bradford and Alyse Rosner. Brenda Goodman has always been a big influence, I first fell in love with her self-portraits, but she does all kinds of fascinating work with linear painted scrim veils and scratching fields of shapes and lines.

I generally gravitate towards creating a depth of field but I have done a few minimal pieces in the past, and to this day, they are some of my favorites. One day I might revisit that but right now I’m solidly Ultralight and it’s a pretty maximal material.

Seren Morey, Double Zebra, 2017, Ultralight and dispersions on panel,40x30x5 in, photo courtesy of Madelyne Harmon 
Seren Morey, Âme, 2018, in.,Ultralight, dispersions and urethane on panel,22x19x4, in, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In your fascinating Yale Radio interview you mention that you are a partner in Guerra Paint. There is a lot of know-how there. Tell me about this facet of your practice and how is it integrated in your art making.

Seren Morey: I started working at Guerra probably around 1994 and it introduced me to a whole new world of materials and color. In 2000 it became clear Art Guerra needed some help with the business, so my husband and I became partners. The business is referred to as a “paint component system”. Artists mix the dispersion (i.e. pigment concentrate) with the binder ( i.e. medium) themselves, thereby having greater control over the texture and color. The first time I started using the stuff my mind was blown and I could not get over how cool it was to control the saturation level of my color. There are all kinds of crazy thickeners and texture agents you can add as well.

Making my own paint puts me more in touch with my materials and allows for greater creative freedom. I have learned a tremendous amount about paint and pigment technology over the years and have gained a deep appreciation for pigments and their individual properties of transparency/opacity, tinting strength and lightfastness. I am a huge fan of tertiary color and love using different sets of pure primaries to create an infinite range of color possibilities. “Eclipse” and “Vortex”, two large recent paintings, are studies in tertiary color. Working with color relationships is one of my biggest challenges and it is a never-ending struggle. My recent interest in Zebra patterns has been a welcome black and white palette hiatus from thinking in color, which is a little exhausting but always exciting.

Photo by Jody Bretnall