An Interview with Artist C. Morey de Morand

January, 2006

Born in Paris, C. Morey de Morand grew up in Canada. She received a B.Sc. in Pharmacognosy from the University of Toronto, and studied art at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada and Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand. She has traveled widely and has been a resident guest artist in India, Canada, Russia, Turkey and Bulgaria. Her work has been exhibited in eighteen countries, including in thirty-six solo exhibitions. She has lived and worked in London since 1975.

Julie Karabenick: You say that you were drawn to the work of Mondrian and Malevich even as a very young child.

C. Morey de Morand: Yes, right from the beginning. I don’t remember having baby books. It was the art books and art magazines that my mother and father had lying around the house that fascinated me. That is where I first came across Malevich and Mondrian—even before I could read. I loved those images instinctively without anyone pointing them out to me. Not the figurative works. When I was about three, I was drawing straight lines as my drawings, causing my mother to declare that I was an artist.

Desire to Transgress
Desire to Transgress, acrylic mediums, pigments & marble dust on canvas,
153 x 183 cm (72 x 60 in), 2005

JK: And you were also drawn to the relations among forms and patterns.

CM: I used to spend hours pouring over large books made up of fabric samples, selecting which pages made the patterns I liked best. Recently at a Henri Matisse exhibition here, I was struck that he had such a book that he had kept all his life. He used it for the pattern samples themselves, whereas it was the patterns and their relationships that occupied me.

Conversationally Speaking
Conversationally Speaking, acrylic on canvas, 41 x 46 cm (16 x 18 in), 1997

Much later, at about age 12 or so, I discovered Bonnard at the Toronto Art Gallery. Early in my life, art galleries and museums showed a lot of Old Masters. My feeling was that I could never hope to be an artist. It was completely outside of my abilities. The Bonnard led me to start to believe that I could be a “real artist” by showing me a less rigorous art. But it was geometric work—Mondrian, Malevich, Rodchenko and the like—that were beautiful.

Ready to Receive
Ready to Receive, acrylic mediums, pigments & marble dust on canvas,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1999

JK: You describe how you studied art in places that, at the time. were quite unsympathetic to abstract art.

CM: At Queen’s University in Canada, we had to draw and then make paintings from plaster casts before going on to copying reproductions. At Massey University in New Zealand, we did nothing except draw from a model five days a week. I was determined to learn what I could. I did landscapes at home secretly and any other abstract or abstracted works. My first complete abstracts were geometric cutout etchings. I was struggling for abstraction from the start, but I was also trying to conform to what I thought I had to do to attain credibility before I could begin.

JK: And it was at Massey University where you first met Clement Greenberg?

CM: Yes. Clem was an important influence in my life He cared fundamentally about art, to the core of his being. He came to New Zealand on a lecture tour. I was hugely excited at his coming to Wellington from the “real art world.” Meeting him was meeting someone who understood what I felt about art. Actually he liked what I was doing, and encouraged me in what I was already determined to do. So it was an affirmation. But he said that New Zealand was too isolated, that “major art has to be made in art centers.” Right then I was confirmed in my determination to get away.

JK: And then in 1973 you received a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council Grant.

CM: Yes. That grant allowed me to travel around the world to see art in contemporary exhibitions in New York, London, Paris, and other centers, to visit Greenberg in New York, the Caros in London, and many others.

JK: And it was during these travels that you met the Paris architect, Oscar Nitzchke, another important influence.

CM: Oscar was the primary mentor in my life. He had worked on the UN building with Le Corbusier, had been Professor of Architecture at Yale, and designed houses for Duke Ellington and Alexander Calder. He knew all the artists of the time—Picasso, Léger, Miro, Duchamp. When I moved to London in 1975, I made frequent trips to Paris to see him. We would wander through Paris and I’d hear him talk about Mondrian, Arp, van Doesburg and many others—their works, their lives and his “take” on them, many of whom he had worked with on projects.

JK: And you settled permanently in London in 1975.

CM: Yes, I arrived in London acutely impoverished and alone with two very young children.

JK: And there you began working with grids?

Transition, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 214 x 183 cm (84 x 72 in), 1976

CM: Yes, the large unstretched Grid paintings began there. I was severely torn as to what to do. Security, established position, the known all beckoned me to go back. One night I had a dream that I was painting a black and white grid over the painting that I was working on at the time. Over and over I slashed the strokes, shouting, “No one can make me. I’m not going to do it.” Waking up at that point, I immediately went down to the basement where my still wet painting that I had been working on lay on the floor and, just as if I were back in the dream, I began slashing on black and white grid strokes over the violet colored Garden of Eden, as it were, behind. Transition was the first true grid. I used the grid to put the past behind me and propel me forward into the present and future. Building a grid, building a wall, building a structure, and this has continued.

Coming Soon
Coming Soon, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 213 x 183 cm (84 x 72 in), 1977

JK: In some of these early grid paintings, the structure becomes more clear, the shapes more precisely defined.

CM: I want the work to be as simple as I can make it—clear, without anecdote, no tremendous burden on anyone. It’s very much about precision, a clarity of expression. The apparent simplicity is the result of rigorous focusing to stimulate the senses directly and deeply.

Courage, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 183 x 183 cm (72 x 72 in), 1976

JK: And the grid appears to have remained a touchstone in your work.

CM: The grid is always important by its absences as well as its presences. What do I mean by the grid? I think I mean a structuring. Often, too, a layering. Ultimately, this creates time and space, banking up immense energy. But I think the best definition of how I see it is as if the grid were an electrode placed between the cathode and anode, serving to control or modulate the flow of electrons. That is to say, structure that controls the force, pumping up the energy or deflecting it.

Double Classic
Double Classic, acrylic & marble dust on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2000

JK: So the grid, typically a purveyor of order and structure, also is used to energize your work?

CM: If you like, the grid acts as an instrument of the dialectic and the tension between the personal and the impersonal. Making a painting, I am always aware of the tension between the formal and the uneven or handmade aspect of painting. The formal balance plays with the accidents inherent in its fabrication. With scrutiny, there is a heightened awareness of the particularity of each pigment and how it is applied. This allows light falling across the surface to emphasize its complexity. Minute differences make the lines dance. Visually, it becomes unstable and open.

Fair Flight
Fair Flight, acrylic mediums, pigments & marble dust on canvas,
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2000-2001

JK: Did you agree with Greenberg’s insistence on flatness in painting?

CM: Clem did state that contemporary art was flat. That was the criterion to be up to date and relevant. However, there is flat and flat. It has to be on the surface, that’s what I understood, and not illusionistic. On the surface there is still its own unique depth, and there is or can be unending space. I see unending space, surface, surface depth, non-compositional, non-closed-in, non-illusionist depth to be essential to the work.

Rubber Necking
It Really Was, acrylic mediums, pigments & marble dust
on canvas, 130 x 97 cm (51 x 38 in), 2000

JK: And by “non-compositional” you mean—

CM: What I mean is that I don’t want to “compose a picture.” I don’t want to have a set scheme, formula, agenda. Neither Fermat’s theorem nor the golden mean. What I attempt to do is empty my mind and face the canvas or paper and see what comes out, what develops. Each stage leading to the next from the working on it. Now I do realize that this may be paradoxical or even said to be nonsense because one carries a lot of baggage, and that, even if unconsciously, shapes what one does. But, that being a given, put it to one side, and begin as if for the first time. There are no rules except those that form within the work. If other rules exist, then why not sabotage them? Kick the restrictions in the face. What is going to happen—that is the interesting beginning. You may wonder when the result seems controlled, but that develops after a very long, intense refining process. I don’t want the work to be a “product.” It must be intrinsically felt all the way.

Mind Dance
Mind Dance, acrylic mediums & pigment on canvas, 173 x 208 cm (68 x 82 in), 2001

JK: And some of the tension or dialectic comes from the various possible readings of its space?

CM: Geometric abstraction has a working space that is not illusionist, but a space created for its own purposes. Made by a kind of intuitive synthesis, my paintings float in infinite space, shifting layers that are neither figure nor ground, or are both figure and ground, while always being of the surface. This space is a density, a tangible property of the surface which is then destabilized by the grids and shifting planes. By the overlapping and shifting of juxtaposed planes, perceptions are altered and ambushed. With an elimination of distraction, the focus is on the experience itself with its after-images and ambiguity. And the focus can wander between infinite space and the minute. This also allows ambiguity.

Time Again
Time Again, acrylic & marble dust on canvas, 122 x 152.5 cm (48 x 60 in), 2003

JK: And the way you use your materials also plays a role in creating spatial ambiguity.

CM: My work highlights and exploits the physicality of paint as well as its ambiguity and vibrant color. Planes dislocate and the eye plays tricks. Illusions of vast distance are denounced by surface detail. Layer upon layer of clear, glorious color is applied, nudging and altering one another, adding visual dazzle. Acrylic varnishes over selected areas imply movement, and patches of translucence or glitter are signifiers that somewhere there is another philosophical or spatial dimension. Using contrasts of extremely thick paint in contained areas to smooth translucence in others, the materiality of painting becomes unavoidable. This is played off against the innate impulse to meaning by an imagined extension into the infinite space that extends beyond the edge.

Dream WithheldDream Withheld detail
Dream Withheld, acrylic mediums, pigment
& marble dust on canvas, 122 x 122 cm
(48 x 48 in), 1998
Dream Withheld detail

JK: You also relate your use of the grid to the experience of time.

CM: My concerns are with time, layering, abstraction. The paintings are themselves the image and the record of their process. Time is embedded in the work as it is created and made. It enters the work and becomes it. The painting has a duration of its own, a beginning and an end that is embedded. Time is needed to enter the work, then time is needed to look at it, which is not the same as the time of making, but they are interconnected. The work is sensed, gradually revealing itself with time. The spectator brings his world, I bring mine, and we change around it. So the work never remains static.

JK: You mention the “innate impulse to meaning” —yet you also want your work to be free of particular allusions?

CM: Yes, I try to free my work of specific allusions. I want the viewer to explore what is in the work, and be free in it to wander, as they bring their own reactions to the piece. The innate impulse to meaning is what we do all the time. We try to make sense of the world, our lives, what is happening to us, to art. “What is the meaning of this?” we ask of everything. Viz. a Rorschach test. So looking at a series of blocks or lines, one person thinks of the horizon, another of a shelf, another of an afterlife, or yet another of a sandwich. My work embraces that.

JK: And you’ve said your work may be read as autobiographical.

Infinite Time Blue New Mexico, acrylic mediums, pigments & marble dust on canvas,
153 x 183 cm (60 x 72 in), 2005

CM: Certainly, everything I experience is in the work. It is completely intertwined. A death, an absence, love, sex, longing, suffering, heart attack, changes of country, acute poverty, joy, happiness—it is all there, embedded.

Painting is a translation into visual language of invisible states of mind engendered by our emotional and intellectual responses to our existence. Starting from various sources, which may be intense emotions, evanescent light, chance congress of patterning, or a color, they gradually, through stages and layering of thought, become clarified, creating their own validity. Translation into painting is beautifully complex, since it is the materiality that carries the ideas forward.

A strong element in many of my works is in an emotionally intense calibration between a thing seen and the experience of the character of a place. Architecture, intersections of streets, all the grids and patterns that make up our milieu are inspirations. As is the symmetry of digital technology with its virtual and impenetrable space.

JK: So a sense of place is important to your work?

CM: I have always responded overwhelmingly to where I am. So the light of one place shows in the work, also the feelings of expanses of space, the prevailing atmosphere of a place. Everything gets used somehow, noted, assimilated, whether consciously or not. That is what the layering or grids are about. Everything colors experience, everything is layered.

Strong colors can come from India, Morocco, New Mexico, but also the Pop media culture of today that is now everywhere. Just as strong contrasting monochrome came from New Zealand’s blinding, bleaching, strong light (no Ozone layer, we now know). It also comes from photography, film, fashion, Rembrandt.

Classic, acrylic mediums, pigments & marble dust on canvas,
31 x 41 cm (12 x 16 in), 2004-2005

JK: And you’ve traveled so extensively.

CM: Well, it’s certainly part of me. I was brought up with constant stories recounted about Paris, Russia, New York, and other parts of the world by my parents and their émigré friends, all of which I longed to see. Wherever I’ve been, it was to the art there that I found a connection, a place. I belonged not to one country, but to art.

JK: How do you wish your titles to function?

CM: They are like titling poems. So it could be a working title—what kept coming into my head as I worked on the painting. Or it could be an indication of how I felt doing the piece, my relationship to it once I’ve seen it finished. Or it could be broadly the mood of the series. Then I will take a book which might convey that feeling to me, say a Chekov, or a Proust, or some poetry, or what I’m reading at the moment, and I will close my eyes, open the book and point. Sometimes this is so apt it is shocking. But if it isn’t, I just keep on until I hit on the word or phrase that connects to what I think is “right.” Was it Rilke who said that Truth is what we recognize? Well, it’s like that. There is something that will be right, but not until it is found will we recognize it. Like a heat-seeking missile, one bypasses what is irrelevant and fixes on what one wants.

JK: And the works with a diagonal trajectory—they often have a lighter, jauntier feel to them.

Rubber Necking
Rubber Necking, acrylic & marble dust on canvas, 213 x 183 cm (84 x 72 in), 1997-98

CM: Diagonals are lighter, but I still want them to stand as themselves. They have a hip-hop feel of the transient mood, about to walk.

Quiet in the Night
Quiet in the Night, gesso, acrylic medium, pigments & marble
dust on panel, 46 x 36 cm (18 x 14 in), 2004-2005

JK: And you so often work quite large.

CM: I want people to lose themselves in the work. To live in the work, escape into it, have time inside the work–its own time, their time. One way to attempt to achieve that is to work on a large scale. I love the broad expanse of saturated color. Yet I have also found that quite small paintings can do this by focusing intently down. Medium-scaled paintings reflect a particular thing I’m trying to do, but as a first choice, I take large for ambitious work where I am investing myself totally to it, or tiny for quicker moments.

The artist and Mantra
The artist with Mantra,
acrylic mediums, pigment & marble dust on canvas,
208 x 173 cm (82 x 68 in), 2001-2004

JK: You titled a recent (2003) retrospective of your work The Love Affair Becomes a Mind Dance. Is this in a sense a metaphor for your creative process?

CM: Yes. It starts with my belief that one is born with a predilection for certain things, ways of seeing and responding, that one responds instantly to some things, art, people, and not others. So one falls in love. From there, one goes on to being in a love affair. There is initially the excitement of what I’m trying to do. I am so absorbed, immersed in the flow, that the ideas develop intuitively. I don’t stop to assess.

This gives way to working more rationally, using one’s intellect to see what happens, pushing the limits and experimenting. So a mind dance.

JK: Before studying art, you studied science. Do you find similarities in how scientists and artists work?

CM: I see similarities between artistic and scientific activity: the intense concentration in pursuit of the possible or the maybe. The way you take a path, look at it, follow it, not prejudge it. Once you start really paying attention, things open out in front of you, things never stop.

JK: What are your thoughts about how the viewer might approach your work?

Rubber Necking
Casino Royale, acrylic mediums, pigments & marble dust on canvas
122 x 153 cm (48 x 60 in), 2004

CM: My works are to be lived with. They are “slow” works that take time in revealing all of themselves. That may be why, even for myself, the works that don’t come forward at first can draw closer with time.

My work is my life, my own world where I belong. I make the rules and no one can tell me what to do there. This is something that I also want to give to others. A place in this work they are looking at in which they can be safe. They can enter the work, finding release.

The paintings are made with intense conviction and commitment, yet the aim in producing them is to let the viewer be free to fly with their own sensations. The viewer completes the work, as it were, with what they bring in their own responses. It is the mind’s eye as well as that which is before the eye, what is behind the given, that is essential.

Artist in her London studio
The artist in her London studio

More about C. Morey de Morand at

Interview images and text copyright©2006 Julie Karabenick and C. Morey de Morand. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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