Born Detroit / BS, Central State University, Wilberforce, OH
Consider the art of Carole Morisseau as a bridge—as an expansive structure made of color, composition, and story that is intended to join differing generations, cultures, ethnicities, and classes.
Morisseau makes art, she says, as an expression of her soul, but accepts that approach to be non-paradigmatic. On a universal level, she sees the role of an artist as one of sharing: of ideas, a story, an aesthetic experience. Hence, the bridge analogy; one has to be willing to step on it and cross to the other side to see, to understand and to learn. As she puts it, “There is always something to learn, something to experience and, therefore, always something to express.”
The inspiration to create art grows from her personal experience, and often originates from a basic fascination with color or form. From there, she believes that her role is to convey the personal experience in a meaningful and visually engaging way. Color and composition are crucial. While most of her art is figurative, her exploration of color-form potency occasionally results in abstraction. The effect can be seen in Hummingbird 5813 (2012) where the palette shifts, drawing the viewer from the sharp and bright upper left to the subtle pastel tones at the lower right, as if intimating the darting flight of a hummingbird. Even in her quick figure studies, she remains mindful of the composition: “I like to choreograph the viewer’s eye—what is the first thing that you see and how does it make the eye travel?”
Fascination with color underpins “Conversations with Color,” a recent series that depicts celebrities, but in a non-commercialized fashion. Rather, Morisseau attempts to convey in it the complexity of lives spent on the pedestal of publicity. The frequent juxtaposition of colors in the portraits, as if to contrast both the glamour and darkness present within one entity, makes them symbolic of the allure and peril of that way of life (See Prince, 2016, and Whitney, 2017).
Morisseau’s variety of inspirations is reflected in her flexible choice of medium. She feels just as comfortable using charcoal, graphite, ink, conte crayon or pencil as she does working in elaborate collages. (See Generations or Track of My Tears, both 2012). She also works with oils (Legacy, 2015), acrylics (Pueblo Woman, 2007), tempera and combinations of the above (The Musician, 2008).
A lifelong Detroiter, Morisseau pays homage to her native city with landscapes that sometimes emphasize its beauty (Belle Isle Conservatory, 2015); in other instances they express concern with the deterioration of the urban landscape (Home in Detroit, 2015). The human form, however, dominates her imagery, with faces serving as particular inspiration. She dignifies people by making them the vehicles of her stories, stories in which narrative inconclusiveness is an integral part of the work’s interpretative potential.
She enjoys working in series. One of them, “Unemployment,” directly gives voice to those affected by the recession. The Wait (2008) features a young man in the center of the composition, sitting with flat affect and hands crossed on his laps, while surrounded by others who also wait listlessly. But this is no doctor’s office; the detail on the subject’s jacket—the UAW logo—matters, situating the scene in the fraught context of labor and economic upheaval. Thus, social concerns emerge as a prominent feature of Morisseau’s art.
Without imposing interpretations, Morisseau hints at what matters to her and why it should also matter to the viewer. A now-retired teacher of Detroit Public Schools and Cass Technical High School, she believes that passing on wisdom, values and knowledge is her responsibility and hopes that her art compels the viewers to feel that obligation as well. An example of that attitude is revealed in Legacy (2015), where human relationships, intergenerational bonds, and the importance of the individual as an essential part of the communal fabric come to the fore. In I Can’t Breathe (2015), the allusion to the death of Eric Garner echoes the dramatic plea of many: Let us breathe. Those images confirm yet another of Morisseau’s strong convictions, that “Art is a sign of the times in its own way.”
Xavier Talvela Swiecki, September 2017
Copyright Essay’d, 2017