Darrel Morris: The Large Works 1999–2008

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Larger than Life

Annin Barrett, Art Institute of Portland, discusses the large-scale embroideries of Darrel Morris.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF)

Larger than Life

Annin Barrett, Art Institute of Portland

Known for his wry and poignant images, Darrel Morris probes the dynamics of power in human relationships with needle and thread. The large-scale embroidered panels, called The Large Works, represent a departure from his smaller work in scale, technique, and context. Now nearly life-size, the figures beckon, intimidate and beseech the viewer. Expressively stitched with only a few colors, these works accentuate the drawn line. The repetitive, circular motion of making the stitches mimics the cyclical nature of human interaction, the way we repeat our experiences person to person, generation to generation, passing along our faults as much as our aspirations.

Stitched onto used fabrics, Morris’ earlier, smaller works serve as witness to contests of will and domination, to the inherent struggle between father/son, boss/worker, and bully/victim. Sharing the plight of anti-hero comics like R. Crumb or graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Morris’ protagonists cannot catch a break. They are insulted and disrespected, beaten up in the heartless milieu of everyday life. Betrayals and nastiness are common experiences in this game of survival. Morris’ embroideries have a condensed impact, highlighting the most crucial moments of painful memory with vividly colored polyester patterns you would rather forget. Yet, this work pulls you into the drama, a willing voyeur to intimate scenes of perfectly captured social dysfunction. There is a grim humor to these pieces as well as sadness and despair.

In these earlier, smaller works, Morris explores conventional and abusive psychological conditioning for young men, such as violent behavior, aggressive ambition and competitiveness. Based on his own life growing up gay and poor in a conservative Eastern Kentucky town, these works capture the intense emotion of damaging personal history with the veracity of a survivor. Like in the Maus books, a disturbing story is told without flinching, as a testament to the experience and an attempt to heal from it. Now, with the larger format, he considers life issues from the cradle to the casket. The work conveys a surreal, larger than life perspective. The intimate exchanges between a couple of people in the earlier works have changed to a much bigger cast of characters populating the scenes. There is a dreamlike and timeless quality to these newer pieces. They could be predicting the future as well as recalling the past. The Large Works address universal themes that are not so specific to Morris’ own life. The edgy, constructed stories continue, but engage the viewer from a new direction that is more inclusive.

Although Morris is not a big fan of comics, their populist appeal, narrative format, and iconic drawing style have some similarities with his work. A simplified, iconic image, Scott McCloud argues in Understanding Comics, allows the viewer to engage with an image more than a highly realistic picture or photograph. “When pictures are more abstracted from ‘reality,’ they require greater levels of perception, more like words.”1 As a result, viewers fill in the blanks with our personal interpretations and thereby associate with the image in a more meaningful way. Morris uses a similar technique with word balloons and iconic images, which are painstakingly embroidered. The stories he relates stitch by stitch are compelling because they are true, and because Morris is a consummate narrator.

It is significant that Morris chooses the stereotypical female skill of sewing for his artwork, learned from his Appalachian grandmother. The hours spent stitching alongside her would have rewarded him with a background rich in storytelling as well as visual patterning, a marked contrast to his otherwise impoverished childhood. Reworking worn fabrics into beautiful quilts with sturdy stitches is an inspiring transformational achievement. As a young man, learning to sew was a defiant act of crossing gender roles. Similarly, in the art world sewing is frequently disparaged, associated with folk art or craft, at best. Both of these stances are oppositional, and in Morris’ hands they become an especially appropriate way for a gay man from rural Kentucky to tell his story.

Being at odds with traditional cultural values gave Morris an appreciation for art outside of the mainstream and this is evident in the artists he cites as influences. His stitching echoes the obsessively detailed painting style of Ivan Albright, the mid 20th century Chicago Magic Realist whose string-like brushstrokes wriggle with surreal intensity. Albright was a stubbornly original painter who concentrated on the decay and vulnerability of human life. Morris is no less an iconoclast with his intensely detailed approach to materials and sardonic view of the weak and powerless. The artist’s stated affinity for Albright and another mid-century group of artists, the absurdly named Hairy Who, reveals a strong Midwestern influence. These loosely allied Chicago-based artists, including many women, created work that was decidedly alien to the male-dominated Minimalism of mainstream fine art then favored in New York. Proud of their regional independence and drawing on sources from “outsider art” such as cartoons and Non-Western art, they made figurative images with a surrealistic edge that resonated with the psychedelic 1960s. Art critic James Yood defines the Hairy Who as having “…funky and irreverent subject matter (often with sexual and/or violent overtones, with imaginative fantasies dealing with the figure under extreme stress)…”2 Morris’ stitched stories certainly fit with this description, as well.

The Large Works have been referred to as drawings done in thread, but they are more than that. The stitched line adds tension to the compositions in a literal way. Unlike drawings with pen on paper, a thread line is pierced through tightly stretched fabric. The resulting image holds an intensity of purpose, a deliberate commitment to the expressive quality of the line. This is also a change from the earlier, smaller pieces, where solid shapes were intricately built up with small textural lines of stitches. Other pieces in The Large Works are appliquéd with a heavy black outline that forms a frayed shadow around the subject. This layered technique allows the fabric to ripple and become more three-dimensional, more real. The stitched line versus the cut edge sets up another level of visual comparison, indicating a hierarchy of dominance between the figures.

Morris plays with the rules of linear perspective by tweaking angles, often leaving out reliable references to a horizon line or vanishing point. The effect is disorienting, resulting in a space through which figures may fall, balance or stand. With more indeterminate space around the figures, Morris creates a scene that reads as imaginative instead of documentary or autobiographical, requiring more active involvement from the viewer. As Morris says, with this open space he is taking himself out of the piece and letting the viewers into his place.3 Here, Morris deliberately references such Color Field painters as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko who used large monochromatic canvases to address the abstract concepts of life and death. The big, open fabric fields of black, red or white of The Large Works give the viewer more space to contemplate the spiritual meaning of the experience with the subject matter and content of Morris’ work. From this spare, yet exhilarating use of technique and space, Morris attains a beauty that invites the viewer to become involved.

These works ask profound questions about family, community, life and death in relation to ourselves. Perhaps it is a sign of Morris reaching his forties, with aging parents and mid-career concerns influencing his self-reflection. Maybe it is a post-millennial quest for understanding our precarious lives in an unstable world. As always with Darrel Morris, it is a searchingly honest look at how he feels, and what he remembers and fears. But in these large panels he considers it a more inclusive experience, not so specific to his own lived past. There is a measure of acceptance with these works, of coming to terms with a harsh upbringing and moving on, scarred but wiser in the ways of the world.

1. Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, ma, Kitchen Sink Press, 1993, p. 49.

2. James Yood. Jumpin’ Backflash: Original Imagist Artwork, 1966–1969. Chicago Cultural Center exhibit brochure, 2000, retrieved from, 11/8/2008.

3. Phone conversation with artist, November 25, 2008.

Selected Bibliography

Donnell, Courtney Graham. Ivan Albright, Chicago, IL: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1997.

Farstad, Julie and Morris, Darrel. darrelmorris, 2003, interview, retrieved from, 8/11/2008

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

Morris, Darrel. “I mean this,” in The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production, Eds. Joan Livingstone and John Ploof, Chicago, IL: School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press, 2007.

Siegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, New York: Random House, 1986.

Wiens, Ann and Ferris, Alison. Portfolio Collection: Darrel Morris, Winchester, UK: Telos Art Publishing, 2003.

Yood, James. Jumpin’ Backflash: Original Imagist Art, 1966–1969, Chicago, IL: Chicago Cultural Center exhibit brochure, 2000, retrieved from, 11/8/2008.

Darrel Morris

Artist Darrel Morris talks about the processes and materials that inform the works on view at Museum of Contemporary Craft.

CraftPerspectives Panel: Curating the Work of Mandy Greer and Darrel Morris
January 22, 2009
Pairing curators with artists, this panel explores the collaborative process involved in the creation of an exhibition. Stefano Catalani, curator at Bellevue Arts Museum, and artist Mandy Greer join Namita Gupta Wiggers, curator at Museum of Contemporary Craft, and artist Darrel Morris. The participants will discuss what the juxtaposition of the two exhibitions on view reveals about contemporary craft today. An open discussion will follow the presentation.

Adult Workshop: Contemporary Embroidery with Darrel Morris
January 24–25, 2009
Oregon College of Art and Craft,
Join us for a two-day workshop that introduces the basics of embroidery to beginning students and provides enhanced technical and conceptual direction to those more advanced. Students will experiment with hand embroidery and appliqué using both traditional and non-traditional materials. Participants leave with a small sampler of these explorations, along with new inspiration to continue work on their own.

Curator Walkthrough
February 11, 2009
Listen, look and ask questions in an intimate setting as Curator Namita Wiggers guides participants through all exhibitions on view: Mandy Greer: Dare alla Luce, Darrel Morris: The Large Works and Toshiko Takaezu: Recent Gifts. Wiggers will give her inside perspective on the artists, the installation of their work in the Museum and how these fiber art and ceramic exhibitions relate to one other.

Craft Conversations: Glenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft
February 12, 2009
Join us for a discussion of Glenn Adamson’s world-renowned book on craft theory in anticipation of his CraftPerspectives lecture taking place February 21. Essential reading for anyone interested in craft, or visual art theory at large, Thinking Through Craft is a confident, inclusive analysis of craft’s relationship to architecture, design and contemporary art. Kate Wagle, head of the department of art, University of Oregon, will lead the discussion.

CraftPerspectives Lecture: Glenn Adamson
Craft in the 21st Century: Directions and Displacements
February 21, 2009
White Stag Building at University of Oregon, Co-presented by University of Oregon
Considered one of the most exciting young thinkers within craft today, Glenn Adamson travels from London to speak about current directions in the craft arena and his recent book Thinking Through Craft. Dispensing with clichéd arguments that craft is art, Adamson persuasively makes a case for defining craft in a more nuanced – and provocative fashion. Glenn Adamson is the deputy head of research and head of graduate studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum and editor of The Journal of Modern Craft.

Exhibition Tour with Marci McDade
March 14, 2009
Join new editor of Fiberarts, Marci McDade, for a walkthrough of the Darrel Morris exhibition. McDade is an artist, writer and former student of Morris.

January 22, 2009 – May 30, 2009

Curated by: Namita Gupta Wiggers

During the past decade, Darrel Morris has created two different series: small and colorful snapshot-sized needleworks and large scale embroideries in a simple, minimized palette. The smaller works layer stitches atop appliquéd pieces of cast-off cloth, focusing on everyday experiences from his own life (exhibited in New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily, 2006). By contrast, The Large Works monumentalize the linear and drawing-like qualities of embroidery in nearly life-size works, moving his focus from the intimate personal sphere to the heavily populated public realm. In yet another approach, Morris employs thick, graphic lines, colored fabric and construction techniques that emphasize both the sculptural qualities of the material and the relationship between fabric and skin, as seen in COACHES and athlete, 2007.

Raised in a small coal-mining town in Kentucky, Morris spent hours learning crafts while listening to his grandmother’s stories. Morris holds an MFA from The School of the Art Institute, Chicago, where he currently teaches as an Adjunct Assistant Professor. His artwork deliberately engages the complex socio-cultural history of “crafts” through contemporary visual practice.

Additional support provided by Regional Arts & Culture Council.