Conversation with Morgan Hobbs
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Morgan Hobbs
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: Tess Wei’s catalog essay for your 2021 exhibition, Bell the Cat (VSOP Projects, Greenport, NY) aligned your work with two terms “proximate - near but not quite there” and “approximate - within range but not equivalent. What words come to mind as you prepare for your upcoming Gross McCleaf exhibit of painting, relief, and sculpture?
Morgan Hobbs: I would add analog, as a noun, “a comparable thing,” and as an adjective, “a mechanism or device in which information is represented by continuously variable physical quantities,” and “not digital, not computerized,” as Merriam-Webster puts it.
The word is relevant as I move between painting, sculpture, and low relief while utilizing a small set of images, shapes, and/or symbols. I’m interested in depicting a single motif in several painted and sculpted ways and in various settings.
Some paintings are split down the middle with two different approaches to the same image. On one side, there is color, light, and shadow. On the other are black and white squares or spots to create the same form on a grid, as if it’s a pixelated image or made of tiles. To me, one becomes the “analog” version of the other.
MH: In Circumpoint, the nested circle is simple, abstract, open-ended, and it shows how a symbol-like form becomes an analog of a larger concept. Its top half is sort of taken from Arthur Dove's paintings that include the sun with dark and light rings radiating from a circle. The bottom is a tiled version of this idea. Despite the top shape being abstract, to me, the bottom shape is more ambiguous: it could be the sun, a target, a pupil and iris, the solar system, etc. In Jungian psychology, the circum point is associated with consciousness and the “self,” which are nice connections.
EJ: The Brick By Brick series of painted, stacked papier mâché objects echo the terms proximate and approximate, as does recent low relief work such as Blocked Window. You‘ve mentioned Phillip Guston's piles of things as an inspiration. Why are you attracted to building and/or rendering stacks of neutrally colored objects? From studying architecture and archeology? Is it because stacks integrate dual views, i.e., flat picture plane with receding perspective?
MH: I started making papier mâché brick and architectural forms in 2016 or 2017. My work had featured semi-autobiographical, domestic interior scenes, but during those years, my focus expanded to broader cultural ideas, social structures, religion, and politics.
MH: Philadelphia has loads of history, myth, and legend in its buildings. I studied anthropology and archeology as a minor in undergrad, and though I don’t have a background in architectural history, I began noticing the carved details––columns, portraits of Benjamin Franklin, angels, crosses––mixed among the structural bricks of the buildings I passed each morning on my way to work.
The details have decorative purposes and symbolic meaning. Columns are reminders of Western culture’s beginnings in antiquity. Benjamin Franklin is essentially Philadelphia’s mascot. Angels and crosses are Christian motifs. And then by creating those shapes in my studio, out of newspaper, I began to see them as stand-ins for ideas, as fragments disconnected from the structures that support them, and this opened many metaphors and narratives.
I stack them in groupings and columns, making them appear somewhat structured, but not necessarily in their intended position. Large blocks are on the top; decorative pieces and sculptural fragments might appear in the middle or at the bottom or along the foot of the stack. I like when they feel like haphazard ruins, unbalanced but somehow still standing. As a painter, I do find it easier to work with rectangular blocks, which are basically six-sided paintings.
EJ: Wei wrote that you are interested in “the ability of an image to suggest resemblance to the non-visible: a feeling, a subjecthood, a state of mind." Does that describe your current work? I see you reaching for hard-to-grasp, conceptual abstraction in Books, Buildings and Bricks (The Ten Commandments), which evokes religion, and an unplacatable yearning for what is buried and lost during millennia. I love the poetic conflation of simplified words and windows. This piece keeps religion and history at arm’s length but suggests the objecthood of culture and law. Considering Wei's umbrella term proximate, could this piece have been titled The Egyptian Book of the Dead or The Koran or The Bhagavad Gita? Did you wrestle with how specific you wanted to be about religion?
MH: I can still relate to Wei's statement, but perhaps I’ve become interested in an abstracted form’s potential references and connections. Books, Buildings and Bricks (The Ten Commandments) is probably the best example. The shape of the papier mâché piece is taken from Guston’s small paintings of books that often resemble tablets and bricks. The connection between a book and a brick seems apt given my interest in how political and social constructs interlock with the structures of our institutions, especially culture and law.
MH: As for referencing a specific religion, I can speak only to what I know and understand. My parents are devout Evangelicals living in the Midwest. They homeschooled me with a religious curriculum until I started high school part-time in 9th grade. We attended a Pentecostal church and then later a non-denominational/Baptist church. I was taught a particular kind of Christian philosophy and a Conservative worldview.
Now I see how that belief system has affected Western culture and centuries of international affairs. It’s fascinating how childhood Bible stories are still relevant to my art history knowledge. Many amazing Western art historical works were commissioned by the church. I got to see a lot of them when I visited Rome and the Vatican in August.
Throughout history, religion has been used as an excuse for colonialism, racism, and other brutalities. I don’t practice any kind of religion, but I do feel a responsibility to pay attention to how “Christian values” infiltrate politics. I’m not a scholar on these subjects, I’m just an artist, but my perspective is unique because of my upbringing and my art and anthropology education. My work seeks to find throughlines from the ancient past to present to future. I want to know how things change through time and how they stay the same.
EJ: Did experiencing Rome change how you render and assemble fragments? Did it seem important to imagine how Roman mosaics, frescos, low reliefs, and building remnants were made and how they looked before they decayed? Does chance survival have a hand in your production of work?
MH: Rome, Naples, and Pompeii made an immediate impact on my practice. When I returned to the studio, I started incorporating black and white spots or tiles on a grid into my paintings. I had previously made low relief works, but after encountering ancient examples of it, my pursuit became clearer. Painting, sculpture, images made from grided squares: each formal approach has its own exciting possibilities. I’m really at the beginning. I’m learning how to use these structural systems to explore my ideas. As for chance survival in my process, no. But that’s a fun idea.
EJ: Wei's remark that your paintings make meaning but never "confirm it" fits recent initiatives of drawing mosaic-like patterns, translating your own symbols into tiled patterns, and integrating mosaic patterns into sculptures such as Console and paintings such as Reflector. What captivates you about mosaics? Are you tempted to make them in stone? Or is the point to make a facsimile, a shape that bridges 2D and 3D?
MH: I won’t make them out of stone, but I am beginning to make them out of melted Type 2 HDPE recycled plastic.
Wei's statement about anticipating, retrieving, and making meaning is still important to me. I like when my work contains a few curious elements that taken together create multiple inferences or interpretations. When I translate one of my symbols into a tiled pattern, it could be interpreted as saying the same thing twice, but the image version and the tiled version are never identical. Returning to Circumpoint, the top and bottom are the same general idea but could be understood differently based on the way they are painted.
The mosaic-style painting is useful in several ways. First, I like the simplicity of using just black and white on a grid. Some of the black and white grids look like tiles and others look digital, like a pixelated image made of 1’s and 0’s. Second, they often become a bridge between 2D and 3D. It seems like each mosaic painting gets thicker and thicker painted tiles. Some of the painting’s tiles are so thick that they almost look like buttons. In that space, yes, the facsimile gets a little blurry.
Stages of Painting: "Circumpoint"
EJ: Does using mosaic grids to replace subject matter, as in Console, or as a topsy-turvy base, as in Reflector, resist confirming meaning by exploring new uses of mosaic patterns? Did you mean for the dark tiles under Reflector to be read as a shadow? In this new context, does mingling Pointillism and digital bits serve to merge old with new?
MH: My work is an investigation of possibilities. This approach is a virtue and a curse because I want to be simultaneously specific and open-ended. As for those “tiles” in Reflector, they aren’t a shadow, they aren’t even tiles, they’re just paint on the canvas. I love them. They’re shadow/black. They weren’t what I set out to do with the tiles, but it’s an interpretation that accords with the shaky nature of imagery.
I have Magritte’s The Treachery of Images tattooed on my arm for a reason!
EJ: Did you copy Roman mosaic patterns before you started inventing your own symbols in the mosaic style? Does this work recall transcribing codes or language? Did you study symbols as they develop into language, such as those in Egypt, the Far East, or Native America?
MH: No, I produced my own. If I had copied, it may have changed how I use the idea of mosaics. Most Roman mosaics I’ve seen aren’t set on a grid, but when I put them on a grid, its structure opens possible associations: pixelation, and forms of abstract painting.
I’m reading Genevieve von Petzinger’s research on Ice Age symbols. She found 32 geometric symbols that were frequently used in cave paintings over 30,000 years. It’s incredible to imagine what they may have meant and if that meaning changed. Thirty thousand years is a long time.
Cuneiform began only 5500 years ago. It’s the earliest known form of writing; in part, due to the incidental preservation of clay tablets which served as a substrate for the marks. Cuneiform is also a very cool example of pictographs (a form of proto-writing with small drawn icons) that developed into writing. As I understand it, the departure from the icons to writing happened sort of like the game Pictionary. The drawings spoken together created unrelated words. Like a bumble bee standing in for the word be. Another amazing fact is that cuneiform was used as the written language for several different spoken languages.
MH: Contemplating the trajectory of human history puts things in a humbling perspective. I feel fortunate to be alive in a time and place that is so connected to the past and the future. Genetically we resemble the earliest homo sapiens, but we have used culture to accelerate our abilities: passing knowledge to younger generations, developing our group’s abilities over time. But even with the entirety of the known archaeological record, even with the James Webb Telescope, even with the many breakthroughs in science and technology that are exponentially more complex, there is still mystery. I want to get that mysterious feeling in my work.
EJ: Was My Sketchbook #2 based on a particular Roman mosaic format? It seems important that you include imperfections and deviations from a perfect grid. Were deviations from the grid a matter of your hand drifting while repeating the tile shape? Is there a story behind these symbols, that surround a fountain or are they more of a glossary?
MH: My sketchbook drawings aren’t based on anything directly, but I constantly collect shapes, symbols, and imagery. Over the last few years, I’ve repeated some of them in my work. I’ve worked with a cross or four-petal flower shape, pictures of fountains, hourglass shapes, skulls, flowers in a vase, suns, etc. In My Sketchbook #2 I’m not being picky about what the symbols are, per se, but I’m fitting them within the frame part of the drawing...
MH: ...I also wanted the icons around the outside edge to be more pictorial than the cross and “x” shapes in the dark rectangle. In some works, the icons come to represent specific ideas or simply pictures of what they are. I like that the hatch mark at the center top left is a tic-tac-toe board, a pound key, and a hashtag. To me, the bottom center right rectangular shape looks like a calculator. I like the imperfection of the hand-drawn squares. Some of my mosaic drawings are less perfect than others; I like them both ways: it all depends on what the drawing needs. I probably wouldn’t ever work on graph paper or something with a machine-made grid. I’m more interested in referencing something machine-made than using it.
EJ: Symbol Drawings 2 seems to explore the transformation of a fountain image as drawing, mosaic, and sculptural form. To you, does making the image feel more flat and less representational (and thus more iconic) imbue the piece with loss, the compression of time, or magic? I sense that painting or sculpting presumed shards of architecture, writing and symbols suggests that collective human endeavor changes but is never entirely lost, yet rather, ripening for reuse. Spolia supports this feeling by using painted mosaic tiles or bricks to create a hallowed zone that is watched over by a sculpture-fragment eye. How does this piece function for you?
MH: Shifting between a drawing, a mosaic, and a sculpture concerns permanence vs. impermanence. Surely the Romans felt their buildings were consequential, formidable, and permanent. But now they are ruins, and were covered with dirt from centuries of leaves, dust, and manure. Pieces of the ruins have been repurposed in St. Peter’s Basilica.
A print of a Piranesi etching of the Roman Forum preserves how it looked before modern excavation. The print feels frozen in time and permanent, but the buildings are gone, and the site still changes with new excavation and constant tourists. Spolia is an attempt at this idea. I keep thinking of the adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Human history is a snake eating its own tail.
EJ: Fountains symbolize eternal life. Your sculptural fountain paintings seem to reference wisdom or inner sight, since your use of fountain water reflecting sky feels interchangeable with a single eye or soul. I love Fountain #4 - Mythic Springs because the levels flow into each other, and Fountain #2 - Techno Falls because it resembles a self-portrait. Where are the fountain paintings taking your thinking now?
The Fountain Series
MH: Water is critical to our existence. As far as we know, life itself isn’t possible without water. Painting water provides many more formal options for my paintings. It’s a nice counterbalance to the bricks and tiles because water is somewhat formless: it takes the form of its container and its motion. To me, the water in the fountains refers to the infinite, the all-knowing, the soul. It reflects the sky above, which in most of the paintings takes the form of a sun with colored rings creating something like a portal or an eye.
Sometimes the fountains look like alien and human figures. Fountains express the broader concerns of my practice. Drill down into a single idea: you release a vast reservoir of possibilities. But will fountains move me closer to something “specific”? Probably not. I enjoy what comes from a game of suggestions, analogies, and approximations.
November 16 - December 23
Morgan Hobbs is an artist from Kansas City, Missouri. She studied historical and prehistoric archaeology in conjunction with her fine arts training at the University of Central Missouri. Now living in Philadelphia, these investigations take on new meaning and urgency, and through her art practice, Hobbs seeks a deeper understanding of the visions and symbols depicted on historic buildings and monuments throughout her neighborhood.
Hobbs has shown her paintings and sculptures both regionally and nationally, including at Satellite Projects in Miami; 33 Orchard in the Lower East Side; Art Market Hamptons; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum and more. She has presented her work and writing at Mount Gretna School of Art; Texas A&M International University, Laredo; Tyler School of Art at Temple University; Pennsylvania College of Art and Design; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and the National Conference for Undergraduate Research, Ogden, Utah. She has received awards such as the Hemera Contemplative Fellowship in 2020, the Linda Lee Alter Award, and the Faculty Award at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where she received her MFA. She was a co-founder of AUTOMAT Gallery and is the Assistant Director of Gross McCleaf Gallery where she is also represented.