Whenever I go to the Portland Art Museum, I always take time to linger by Washington state glass artist William Morris’ three-story-high “Artifact Panel.”
With its mysterious assemblage of vessels, shells, tools, bones and fossils, all made of glass that could not look less like glass, it isn’t just an epic work of art — it’s a whole encyclopedia.
Seattleites now have a chance to explore a Morris “encyclopedia” right here in town with a glorious new show at Abmeyer + Wood Fine Art: “William Morris: Archived Works, 1984-2007.”
This museum-worthy exhibit covers almost the full span of Morris’ career (he retired from glass-art-making in 2007). “Archived” signifies that the show includes some pivotal early works that Morris preferred to hold onto privately over the years, rather than sell. This is their first time on the market.
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Morris’ work thrives on a paradox. It uses cutting-edge glassmaking technique to tap into an ancient world. At first glance, you may think you’re looking at miraculously preserved archaeological finds rather than contemporary glass art. Even Morris, at times, has seemed taken aback by his own technical wizardry and what he’s been able to pull off with it.
“If I had been asked then about what I’m doing now, I would have said it was impossible,” he said in an interview in the mid-1990s. “What I do with the surfaces now is something I’d never have imagined three years ago.”
His fascination with prehistoric artifacts dates from his boyhood in Carmel, Calif., where he found Native American archaeological fragments in the hills above town.
“No matter how far from these objects we get,” he has remarked, “there’s a natural fascination about them. We really can’t leave who we are.”
The earliest works in the show — “Stone Vessel” (1984), “Petroglyph Vessel” (1989) — overtly reveal their glass nature. Both are handsome, if not medium-defying, although the “prehistoric painting” embellishments on “Petroglyph Vessel” are thoroughly beguiling.
Starting in the 1990s, however, Morris seemed bent on confounding all notions of what glass can do. Two large pieces from 1991 — “Burial Urn” and “Artifact Still Life” — present contrasts between obvious glass containers and their unglasslike contents (skulls, bones, horns). By 1993, with “Artifact Tooth,” Morris had left any resemblance to glass behind. “Tooth,” which looks rather like a recently unearthed rhinoceros tusk, resembles ceramic work more than anything else. It also seems to defy the possibility of glass by having a hole bored through its middle, with a “bone dagger” transecting it.
Morris ramped up the scale and the multicomponent complexity of his work in “Suspended Artifact: Urn with Orinka” (1994). Its satchellike urn, again festooned with marvelous “prehistoric” art, hangs from a horizontal spear, with a curving drumstick hanging beside it. By 2000, Morris was sculpting magnificent animal heads (including “Animal Urn: Imperial Zebra Head”) that seemed to owe more to stone or clay sculpting tradition than the hot shop. Yet they were glass.
In the last years of his glassmaking, Morris could conjure “bone,” “wood,” “ivory” and “clay” out of glass with a wizardry that is, frankly, a little eye-boggling. In his “medicine jar” series, created between 2005 and 2007, he looked to the indigenous traditions of Latin America and Asia for inspiration. The result was a shape-shifting exploration of all sorts of vessel-and-stopper possibilities.
“Medicine Jar: Bats,” for instance, depicts exquisitely detailed bats hanging inside a large, hollowed-out piece of fruit with thick green leaves curling down from its stem. The stem and leaves form a stopper you can lift up from the jar. Each element of “Bats,” from the creatures themselves to the organic curl of those green leaves, is so brilliantly realized it takes your breath away.
Morris clearly quit at the height of his game (he was only 49). Rumor has it that he’s now enjoying some of the pursuits — bow hunting, backwoods explorations — he so potently evokes in his work. Maybe when you’ve perfected your craft to this degree, there’s little left to prove.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org