For emerging Australian painter Morgan Stokes, working in digital media for years instilled in him a sense of alienation from the physical world. Galvanized by this experience, he turned to painting to critique the concept of what he calls the ‘virtual gaze’, with paintings that cleverly explore our complex relationship with technology—in a new solo exhibition titled ‘Concerning Existence’.
Stokes refuses to conform to one painterly style; instead he has moved fluidly across artistic movements. A 2019 group exhibition at Halle113 in Berlin marked his painting debut with a series of figurative-surrealist paintings; vividly-colored works playfully exploring the digital experience through traditional painting techniques. Having moved back to Australia soon after, Stokes had a dramatic change in his visual aesthetic, with his first sold-out solo show in Sydney, titled ‘Homophone’, presenting a collection of post-minimalist works in muted colors.
Postminimalism is a movement that unfolded in response to a push-back against Minimalism during the 1960s and early 1970s, and is characterized by an emphasis on depicting the artwork’s process over the finished result. The works in ‘Concerning Existence’ achieve this through techniques some may consider detrimental to the overall ‘perfection’ of an artwork: Stokes purposely scratched parts of the canvas, created marks that appear accidental (but are indeed intentional), and exploited the material properties of the paint and canvas. Despite their sparse appearances, Stokes’s intent was to create an atmospheric series of paintings that tell a story through the articulation of how they were made.
The overall mood is nuanced, introspective, and melancholic, capturing the weariness of a modern generation.
With this new artistic direction and exhibition, Stokes investigates the physicality of painting and our perceptions towards the works, with beautifully textured art that responds to our escalating entrapment within our screens. Each artwork has a calm element yet encompasses an almost haunting ambience; existing as something to look at beyond just something to scroll past; in spite of our declining attention spans and modern sensibility to mindlessly consume media. The overall mood is nuanced, introspective, and melancholic, capturing the weariness of a modern generation. We spoke to the artist from his Sydney studio about pursuing a creative life in Berlin, and our inevitable fate of technological singularity.
You’re a digital designer by trade; when and how did you get into painting?
I spent years staring at a screen, creating images with this escalating neurotic perfectionism intrinsic to the job. I was so absorbed in this world of updates and optimization and productivity and really believed in the hype and excitement of tech. But eventually each update and each new vision of the future only made me more cynical, so after six years in the industry I thought, ‘fuck this’, and recklessly moved to Berlin to spend all my savings and become a painter.
Your first exhibition later that year was at Halle 113, in southeast Berlin. Can you talk about the style of your works exhibited there, and how your aesthetic changed upon returning to Sydney?
I participated in the first version of Halle113—I don’t think we had a theme for the show but the vision was big. I was insecure and wanted to prove both my technical and conceptual skill and so created this huge digitally-inspired Baconesque triptych. I had a good response to my surreal works but after returning to Sydney in 2020, sitting in lockdown and communicating with everyone through the screen, my distaste for the digital world resurfaced. I thought I cleverly noted that the illusion of art had shifted from the canvas to the screen and we were now the illusion. Eventually I realized art and craft are not necessarily related so I made this dramatic shift to abandon my technical paintings in order to pursue these concepts I found much more interesting and satisfying.
Why are you interested in portraying our relationship to the digital world through painting?
We are already so deep in the virtual world, the transition past the point of singularity [the future point in time at which technological growth overtakes humanity and is irreversible] will go unrecognized. I guess I’m trying to explore my own humanity, and how we see and perceive, which are basically experiences unreplicable by robots. We get used to seeing paintings as images—like things we scroll past in a feed—but ultimately they are physical objects, and that is what I am interested in.
The works in the exhibition are described as post-minimalist. Can you talk us through what this means?
The minimalists were concerned with sterile perfectionism, revelling in objectivity and fact. Post-minimalism as a reaction brings back the artist’s hand and the imperfect, messy human element.
What was your approach to painting this series of works—how do you make them?
Each of these works is a study in the makeup of a painting: paint, canvas, and timber. For each I explore one element or another, focusing on nuances or surprises in the medium; whether that be the color of canvas, the effect of 16 layers of paint, or exposing the usually hidden stretcher bars.
Which artists are you inspired by?
Of course Lucio Fontana, Sergej Jensen, and Mark Rothko, then there’s Joan Miró and my phone background is currently Helen Frankenthaler. I could go on.
What role does art have in society?
Art is a mirror and contemporary art is funny, I don’t think most people understand that. First you laugh, then you cry, that’s the power of art.