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Monday, March 21, 2011

Jeremy Morgan of the S.F. Art Institute Mixes Eastern Sensibility with Western Tradition

Posted By on Mon, Mar 21, 2011 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge Jeremy Morgan in his studio.
  • Jeremy Morgan in his studio.
100 Profiles: SF Weekly interviews 100 people in San Francisco arts and culture.

No. 94: Jeremy Morgan, associate professor, San Francisco Art Institute

Artist Jeremy Morgan recounts the day his parents gave him "various mystical texts" including Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, the Bible, and the Koran. "All of these are possibly right," they told him. "You need to figure that out." Morgan, an associate professor of painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, has been exploring that through painting ever since. The arresting images in his large-scale abstractionist landscape paintings fall somewhere between dream and reality, with colors that appear to transform, as they might in a memory. "I desire to create the moment as sensation rather than record," he says.

click to enlarge "Machermo" - JEREMY MORGAN
  • Jeremy Morgan
  • "Machermo"
A meeting with Morgan is a whirlwind, reminiscent of the wild, inverted landscapes he paints. One moment, you're recounting his childhood on a Welsh hill farm with his geographer father, (the genesis of his deep connection with nature and landscape). The next, you've joined Morgan in a recent, impromptu study of g-forces, as he rolled high above the Sierra in a biplane, basking in the inversion of sky and earth in what he calls "the ultimate cubist experience." He brings this sense of unexpectedness to his paintings. While he told the pilot of the speeding plane before taking off, "I own an old VW Rabbit. I have no concept of g-forces," spend enough time with Morgan's works and your understanding of acceleration relative to free fall will deepen acutely as you tumble through his contradictory, color-saturated images. Even as he describes some of his influences (Turner, Friedrich, Constable) and his evolution as an artist, he retains a level of uncertainty: "These are markers on a journey," he insists. "I haven't come to any conclusions."

After completing studies at Oxford and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Morgan arrived at the San Francisco Art Institute on a Harkness Fellowship in 1983 and has taught painting at the school ever since, including two stints in the rotating position of department chair. His students are the beneficiaries of his inexhaustible enthusiasm as an artist and his critiques are unusual in that he realizes the irrelevance of his opinions in evaluating student work. "My job is to be a guide and an agent provocateur. Very rarely do I choose to be a judge," he says, stressing that, in his role as teacher, personal taste is moot. "What I like has nothing to do with it. ... Each person is unique at that moment." His respect for their work and for their autonomy as artists reflects the high value he places on his work with students. He views this as an "investment in the future of culture."

This sensitivity to the emerging artists he teaches is evident in their loyalty to and affection for him. Asked about Morgan as a professor, current student Marcela Arreaga praised his delicate incisiveness saying, "He knows where your art's going before you do." In expressing her admiration for his willingness to open up his world to his students, Shannon Stovall, another student, described the trips he takes with each class to his studio in Marin County. He makes himself vulnerable, showing work in many stages and incarnations, she says.

"I respect him for that," Stovall says.

click to enlarge "Aquavolcanic" - JEREMY MORGAN
  • Jeremy Morgan
  • "Aquavolcanic"
Though he gleefully echoes the sentiments of English novelist Raymond Briggs ("The light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train"), an ebullience radiates from Morgan that is almost palpable in his paintings. He explains this unfettered optimism simply: "I consider life an experience and not a problem to be solved." An Angolan artist and activist who viewed his work and gave him what he considers one of his career's best critiques described it in a different way: "It's beautiful because it's from the heart, not the head. ... I see a freedom that I may one day enjoy."

Behind this optimism and authentic emotion is a deep reverence for the primacy of nature. His work explores a distinctly Asian sense of natural cosmic order versus the paternalism of the Western relationship to landscape that, he likes to remind people, "sentimentalizes that which [it] was actually destroying." Morgan has exhibited in Asia, studied that continent's artistic and religious traditions, and taken students on yearly painting trips to China; he is inspired by the uniquely "Chinese idea of a cosmic void from which things emerge and return." Echoing some of the animist roots of Taoism and even early Christianity, he describes clouds as "the exhale of the earth," and the clouds you see in his paintings appear as an amalgam of breath, condensation, and nebulae. It's this sheer grandeur of the natural world that informs his work, which he describes in an awakening in the Himalayas, looking at Mount Everest from 18,000 feet. It led to a distinct clarity of vision: "The mountain was literally earth kissing sky, touching infinity," he says. "That's what I want to paint. A moment of that."

Jeremy Morgan's current exhibition is on display through March 29 at the Sandra Lee Gallery. He is scheduled to speak at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 25. Admission is free.

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Kate Sommers-Dawes

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