Nelson Henricks and Michael Morris

Two generations of queer-informed abstraction are paired in exhibitions by Nelson Henricks and Michael Morris. Queer abstraction has only recently been considered a genre; its lack of imagery, which makes it not directly identifiable as queer, accounts, perhaps, for the hesitation. Two major American exhibitions in particular—“Queer Abstraction,” 2019, at the Des Moines Art Center, which included Canadian Jade Yumang; and “FOUND: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction,” 2017, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York—have attempted to define this relatively new genre. In Canada, both Morris and Henricks have successfully infused queer content that ranges from dandyism to musical theatre to outright phallic forms into abstraction.

Morris’s exhibition is comprised of two silkscreen posters and 24 prints (silkscreens and etchings with aquatints) dating from 1967 to 2005, with a 2012 reissue of one suite, “City Deluxe,” 1968. While he is best known for his large-scale geometric abstract paintings, Morris is ultimately a multimedia artist. The exhibited prints reflect his diverse influences: concrete poetry, Russian constructivism, musical cinema, dance, Art Deco and architecture. Some, notably Babylon, 1967 (an artist’s proof and an editioned silkscreen are displayed), which abstracts ziggurat forms, stress geometry. In contrast to these is the visibly queer imagery in Mechanix Illustrated, 1972, a suite of nine silkscreens. Early for queer art, especially in Canada, these prints are modernist, cinematic and blatantly phallic. In Mechanix Illustrated (8), 1972, a phallus and testicles morph into an abstracted, Art Deco-influenced, architectural design recalling the Chrysler Building for the fan-like spread of triangular shapes that form its crown. The crown also references the theatrical dance patterns of Busby Berkeley movies, which influenced Morris. Berkeley, a film director and choreographer, was noted for shooting highly choreographed dance numbers with complex, often kaleidoscopic arrangements. This strategy of filling modernism with queer content is visible in Henricks’s “Winter Fruit,” and that links the two artists’ work across the generations in which they came of age: the ’60s (Morris), and the ’90s and the aughts (Henricks).

Michael Morris, City Deluxe 1-10, 1968/2012, etching & aquatint, edition of 25, 30 x 22 inches each. Images courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

Henricks’s exhibition is comprised of small paintings (16” x 12”), inkjet prints (20” x 16”) and vinyl phototex wallpaper (a composite of smaller rectangles—24 plus four more that are cut off at the bottom, with total dimensions of 98” x 48”). Henricks composed all the pieces uniformly: occasionally one but usually two colour bands surround black rectangles, framing them. Housing four of these small paintings in a horizonal row are two small-scale theatrical-like sets installed on opposite sides of the gallery, Lacuna (Model for Knowledge Production) I and II, 2020. These two pieces are representations of the artist’s studio and thus an additional “frame” enclosing the paintings. Henricks devised this notion of a frame within a frame during a 2017 residency in New York, and after returning to Montreal, he completed 70 paintings over two years. He used “ready-made” acrylic paints inherited from his mother following her death in 2015. The paints serve as an additional frame, or a selfimposed limitation, by determining his palette. They ultimately act as emotional and autobiographical signifiers.

Michael Morris, Mecanix Illustrated (3), 1972, silkscreen, edition of 50, 16 x 12 inches.

The paintings’ simple visual uniformity stresses this personal signification, as well as historic allusions, by minimizing form. The black square in each painting’s centre, the exhibition’s focal point for its repeated framing and central placement, refers to a blank black page included in the early experimental, satirical and dandyist novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759, to represent the death of a character with the Shakespearean name Yorick. The reference to this novel’s dandyism also makes a subtle but omnipresent queer reference. And it is certainly possible to link the black square motif to Malevich and the framing colour bands to Albers. Through historical reference and autobiography, Henricks inserts the queer self into formalism’s largely heteronormative history.

Nelson Henricks, Lacuna 23, 31, 38 & 32, 2019, acrylic on wood panel, 16 x 12 inches.

Morris’s and Henricks’s exhibitions are significant for countering the traditional “purity” of formal abstraction with a queer aesthetic. Their queering of abstraction, however, contrasts what writer Joseph Henry observes when discussing the “FOUND” exhibition in a Brooklyn Rail, 2017, article titled “Queering Queer Abstraction.” He notes that abstraction is employed because “if queerness can be too easily ‘read’ on its surface, then it can homogenized, trivialized, and perhaps commodified.” Morris and Henricks do not abstract to obfuscate queerness. On the contrary, they empty abstraction’s history and imbue it with a queer presence, subtly in Henricks’s exhibition and both subtly and overtly in Morris’s. Their modus operandi is analogous to one of the central artistic strategies of General Idea (peers of and collaborators with Morris): the “imagevirus.” A William Burroughsinfluenced attempt at “infecting” the mainstream, the imagevirus, GeneraI Idea explains, “spreads” by “conquering the uncontested territory of culture’s forgotten shells” with alternative, radical content. Morris and Henricks likewise fill the “void” of Greenbergian abstraction to launch a potentially much larger conversation concerning what constitutes a particularly Canadian queer abstraction. ❚

“Winter Fruit” by Nelson Henricks and “City Deluxe” by Michael Morris were exhibited at Paul Petro, Toronto, from November 20 to December 23, 2020.

Earl Miller is an independent art writer residing in Toronto.