PROVIDE CONVERSATIONS: Scott Morgan
When we brought artist Scott Morgan’s work into the Provide Design Gallery, we didn’t just make it another art show: we transformed our space to truly celebrate his new collection, 10,000 Years. We caught up with Morgan to chat about his stunning new works – and the ancient inspiration behind it.
How’s your day been going so far?
It’s sunny. It’s gorgeous. And in a very short period of time, we’re not going to have this, so I’m already plotting my escape.
Where are you headed?
Well, because the artwork I do is completely dependent on sunlight, I have to go to places where there’s sun. I’m going to New Mexico on the tenth for the solar eclipse. And I might go back to New Mexico again, because I’ve spent a lot of time there.
An eclipse! That sounds like perfect escape. Before we get into your latest project, can you tell us a little about the path you took to get to your current work?
I went to University in California and studied art and writing, and then I was an assistant for fashion photographers in Europe for a while, and then I shot advertising for a long time at a big advertising studio in LA for 20-something years.
When I was 19 or 20, I left university for a sabbatical and went to Europe, and I went to every major museum. I wanted to see the real art instead of just slides in a lecture hall with a thousand people. And from there I ended up being an assistant for an Italian fashion photographer, and that totally changed my life. Back then, the best artists and photographers in the world were working for those magazines. And I opened them up and went, wait a second. They’re doing what we do in art school, but they’re doing it with beautiful girls in exotic locations, and they get paid. I want to do that.
I didn’t quite end up doing that, but I did to a degree, anyways. I had an art practice the whole time, which informed a lot of my advertising work.
How do you describe that art practice?
All of my work is related to the human experience in relationship to consciousness in the world. I’ll give you an example. One body of work is called Cathedral. I was dealing with the idea of what we consider to be sacred. Some person is walking in the 1300s down a slope in the south of France, and says, “This is going to be a great place for a cathedral. This is a holy place.” They build a cathedral there, and people from all over the world come and got healed in this place.
I thought, that’s fascinating. That was declared by human consciousness, inspired by something larger. But I said, I’m living in BC. I’m going to do a piece about this stone here that’s been here for 10 million years. I’m going to use the materials of the Renaissance, which is the gold leaf that they use in all the altar pieces. I gold leafed natural objects in the natural world – including a giant boulder, which must have been 18 feet long and 10 feet wide, and it was sitting in the water off of Hornby Island.
For that day that thing became sacred in the terms that we use, because it’s all sacred, in the true sense: everything is sacred.
The subtext of all of this is, I’ve been doing a daily meditation practice twice a day for 50 years. So everything I do comes from that stillness. It’s not conceptually framed around that at all. But it’s in every piece.
That’s impressive – 50 years!
And I started when I was quite young – I was in high school, and I’ve done it every day twice a day. This year is 50 years.
There’s absolutely stillness in the works you have showing at Provide right now. Can you tell us more about them?
So the pieces that are in Provide are very, very new pieces. Most of them never been seen before. These pieces are called 10,000 Years. I was thinking about ancient time.
So that was the first spark of an idea for you, conceptualizing ancient time?
It was the actually something more primal than that. It was about not participating in what we understand photography to be. I wanted to be as far away from “image making” as possible. But I wanted to be back into drawing, or mark making – like petroglyphs, or cave paintings.
So it was just a little itch I had. And it took three years for the idea to even come. Thank you, Covid, because during that time I got to focus on this, and then it kind of transformed.
So, the sunlight that’s lighting me right now, that is formed in the heart of the sun. And the basic element of that is a photon: a photon is the basic element of light. And the photons are formed in a nuclear reaction inside the sun. And for this light to get to us, it takes between 10,000 to 160,000 years. This light that we take for granted every day is older than civilization. It’s older than language.
Tell us more about the science, then?
Basic photo paper is paper with a tiny, microscopic layer of gelatin. And in that gelatin is something called silver halides, which is the active ingredient. So every black and white picture you’ve ever seen, every black and white film is light interacting with silver halides.
Now what happened, and I want to be very clear about this: it was a total accident. But total accidents come from that universal curiosity. It’s not me individually, but something that wants to create through me, and so I allow it to come, and it usually takes me down a certain road.
So here is the magic. I use a whole archaic set of mirrors and lenses, just so primitive you can’t even imagine, because I don’t want to be controlling it. I want to allow the elements, the wind, the angles of everything to dictate to some degree. But what happened is I focused this solar radiation, which is what sunlight is, onto this silver gelatin paper and those silver halides converted from halides to metallic silver.
So if you look at the surface of the pieces, you’ll see beads of pure silver as the line. I have no idea how this happened. But it happened. So when you see the surface of the pieces, they’re actually reflective. If they’re facing an open window, they’re luminescent, because the surface is metallic. Sometimes it turns green, sometimes it turns gold. The paper’s being etched or burned.
And so for me, I thought, Wow, this is a profound understanding that we take for granted all the time. I’m going to work with that idea.
So the work that I do is to focus that ancient light, which is sunlight, and I etch on the surface of photographic paper, and a chemical process happens. Sorry for all the science here, but you can’t really get it without the science.
Can you tell us more about the process? You’re using physical equipment to try to focus and bounce the light to get that precise line?
Okay, so it’s a bit of a mystery process. It has to be. It’s such a long and multi-faceted process to get to what I’m creating, and it took me years to come up with it, and part of it is just constantly surrendering the knowledge of how to do it right. Because I have this huge photographic knowledge. I used to shoot cars and advertising. So that is a very fluid vocabulary for me. And what is the most primal aspect of photographic process? The Greek definition is that photography is light. Writing with light. But really, what photography is, is light transforming matter.
But in photography everybody talks about the paper, the object, how they did it!
But Rothko never talked about his brushes. Did you ever have Brâncuși say, “this number 2 chisel is the way to go?” I come from the Light and Space School because I was in California. And my main artistic influence.
But I want to know emotionally how it resonates with me. I was in a gallery the other day here, and I walked in to see this piece, and the gallerist immediately came up, and the artist was saying, they said, Tell him about that piece. I said, ‘No, no, no, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know the concept right now.
I want to emotionally or on some deeper level, feel the piece. Then I’ll read the tag and find out. When I go to see a Richard Serra piece, I don’t want to know what kind of steel it is. I don’t know how he turned it. I’m going to see how he defined space, and the gravity of it.
And why did you choose to show the work at Provide?
When I moved here from California, and I had a big studio, I shot advertising projects for David when he was an art director at Cossette. I had a show a couple of years ago when I first moved back to Vancouver. And when I moved back, I met up with my friend Janaki Larsen
She’s incredible – I have one of her pieces on my entry console.
Well, Janaki and I are very close. And we got closer because of this body of work. We were friends from way back, and as soon as I did the first piece, literally, I thought, Janaki Larsen is going to lose her shit. And the reason is because it has this spontaneity and rawness and process that her work is very much about. Long story short – and this ties back to David, I promise! – I went to Janaki. So I brought a whole box of these pieces. We laid them out, and she started crying.
She said, we have to have a show together here, in her new space. So we had a show for only 10 days. And Janaki made glazes to match my work. And David came over.
I contacted David later – and said, you want me to bring you some work to the Design Gallery, just for him, personally. And I opened the box, and he bought the first two pieces out of the box. And he just said, You know what, we want to really energize the space. I think it’d be great to have a whole show of yours that Provide. And I said, Let’s do it.
So how has it been seeing how the Design Gallery fits with your work?
I think it’s gorgeous. We have the same aesthetic – we’re both minimalist in that way.
It really became a conversation when people come in, they really work with the furniture. I mean, I believe that art is to be lived with.
So the Design Gallery itself, I have a lot of respect for it. David’s had a vision. He had an idea of what he wanted it to be more than just a showroom. He wanted to have some kind of energy to it.
Scott Morgan's 10,000 Years exhibition at Provide Design Gallery is on until Saturday, November 4, 2023.
Photography by Luis Valdizon, Seth Stevenson and Scott Morgan.