Building Block

Building Block

Rebecca Morris

Photography by Ye Rin Mok

Rebecca Morris is a painter based in Los Angeles, who is also a Professor in the Department of Art at UCLA. Her work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial (NY), Hammer Museum (LA), and The Museum of Contemporary Art (LA), amongst other notable galleries and institutions.

We’ve long admired Rebecca’s work, and so we were delighted with the chance to capture her and her well-loved Cylinder Duffel for With Age. We visit Rebecca's studio in Lincoln Heights at the beginning of this year, where her large scale abstract paintings are made—each one an arranged and layered interplay of shape, color, and texture. Her personal style is also a unique visual vocabulary made up of deliberately casual pieces, and to our delight, she is almost always adorned with a Building Block bag. Below, Rebecca offers a generous glimpse into what influences have helped shape her work and world, the systems she has created to protect her creative flow, and what she looks forward to accomplishing in the next moment of her life.

Can you tell us about your background and how it shaped your current practice as a painter, as a teacher?

Spaces are important and influential to me. I grew up in New Haven Connecticut where there is some remarkable architecture by Louis Kahn, Kevin Roche, and Paul Rudolph. I spent a lot of time in and around those buildings. In addition, I have vivid memories of my friends’ homes. Many of these houses had back stairways and home offices. One friend lived in a townhouse on a circle of like townhouses. Also as a child, I had dollhouses and made extensive drawings of neighborhood plans and house interiors.

My dad taught in the Music Department at Yale University which was why we were in New Haven. A composer, teaching at the college level, he was a model on how to be an artist, support yourself and have autonomy to do your work. My mom worked full-time and also made ceramics/ pottery, teaching classes on Saturdays from her pottery studio in our basement. My mom and her friends, who would come over to work, would do their pottery and I would make my own pieces alongside them.

There were many moments of being shown something simply by experiencing it. At the Yale Art Gallery I remember sitting on a bench looking at the Rothkos, understanding that the bench was there because you were supposed to stay and look. And the paintings made you want to. Another memory was when my dad would take me and my sister to get ice cream cones and then we would go hang out at the Claes Oldenburg tank sculpture which had a massive lipstick attached to the top. We loved this, it was our routine.

Are there any cues you take from daily life that are reflected in your work, in your practice?

This is an interesting question, most cues in my work are from daily life. There is much important material here. Colors, textures, their combinations, the dry surface of stucco, qualities of light. I started out as a realist painter. Maybe I didn’t move as far away from that as I think.

The use of color in your paintings can be so electric and varied. Can you tell us a bit about your use of color in your work? How are you informed by color?

Color is content for me and I go through phases. There were many earlier years of brown, gray and black paintings, followed by neon. I’ve always used metallic colors, starting with metallic pencils as a child, then gold and silver leaf in college. Now I use metallic oil paint and spray paint in my paintings and water based iridescent inks in my drawings. I like how metallics shift with light in real time, how they can feel both gaudy and severe, and then achingly beautiful.

A standing color concern is to achieve the “ultimate red painting”. A specific, very internalized idea of total red, with lots of dark, earthy varieties. The “ultimate red painting” is more of a single goal. I’m also doing this with the color pink, making “ultimate pink paintings”. Though after making one pink painting, I find myself only wanting to make another right away. With pink I feel more wanting rather than satiated.

Your studio is organized in such a systematic order. We enjoy seeing your paint tubes laid out in a type of visual map. Can you elaborate on your personal systems?

The organizational systems in my studio are there to protect creative flow. If I can’t find something or I discover I’ve run out of anything, it’s very disruptive and annoying. About once a year there’s a big studio cleanup: oil paint inventory, new paper on the floor, vacuuming. The big glass topped palette table in my studio was built for me (by my husband) so I could lay out all my tubes of paint, by color, and see them all at once and not forget what I have. I also use a lot of unified archival storage boxes, which mean things visually disappear, stack easier and items stay safer inside.

What are you currently working on?

My next significant exhibition is a solo show at the ICALA in fall of 2022 with curator Jamillah James. I am very excited to work with her and do this show in my hometown.

Who has been a big influence on you?

Gallerist Barbara Weiss. She was a strong, thoughtful, high minded person who notably championed the work of women artists. She was also an expert on making a beautiful life.

Tell us about a collection you keep.

I have a mushroom Christmas tree ornament collection. (Although it also dips into icicles, pinecones, and cats.) I tend to favor the vintage glass variety and prefer the naturalistic mushroom over the psychedelic. Felted ones and wooden ones made in Germany are well represented too. (My grandmother was from Austria). I have a wooden gnome ornament guy who is a mushroom collector with mushrooms in his basket and a bird perched on his hat, and some really weirdo ones that are in their own category. Many are gifts from family and friends, which make them very special to me. I love unpacking them after a year away. This year I got a big white artificial tree for the collection to go on. I’ve wanted a white Christmas tree since I was 5. I finally indulged myself in 2020. The pandemic, being home, not seeing family and needing a lot of extra cheer this year, took it to the next level.

Any personal "rules"? Professional "rules"?

Don’t be an asshole. Listen. Be generous.

What’s your favorite thing about being your age right now?

It’s interesting to have lived as an adult person for a while now. I have some history, past eras even, and I hope to have about the same amount of time still ahead of me. At 51 I am able to tangibly see the accumulation of my work, what I’ve built, what that looks like and to think about its future trajectory. It’s a formidable moment to decide what I want, what is actually possible. It also gives me the positive, very urgent sense of how much I still want to accomplish and make as an artist.

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