Interview: Dark Artist Robert Morris
Robert Morris is an artist, and image maker, and purveyor of all that is otherworldly. He’s an ardent New Yorker since 1998, churning out his twisted visions from his Brooklyn studio. Working in a variety of mediums, Robert has found a niche working as a digital compositor. His work is decidedly dark and shows influences from the likes of Gustav Dore, H.R. Giger, and the writing of Lovecraft. His work has been covered in publications such as Fangoria, Cthulhu Sex, and Creativity Magazine. We had the opportunity to chat with Robert on a range of topics from his artistic process, to the state of horror cinema today. Enjoy.
Brutal As Hell: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. I always love the opportunity to talk to folks outside of the traditional “film” aspect of horror. I’ve seen a lot of twisted dark art, but your art was immediately striking when I first saw it. There’s a strong surrealistic influence readily apparent. Can you tell us about where you got your start and how long have you been making this kind of art? Who or what were your earliest influences?
Robert Morris: I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember. I had family and friends around me who supported my creativity and bought me art supplies all the time. My uncle, also an artist, took me under his wing early on and exposed me to many great opportunities I would have never gotten by myself. My earliest influences were definitely Disney cartoons growing up. They were the highest caliber animation at that point in my opinion. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Then I worked at a Disney Store at a local mall in college and quickly realized Disney wasn’t as brightly colored as I had originally thought. But of course, I was always into the darker aspects of Disney. The Black Cauldron comes to mind. I liked the villains. They always interested me more than the hero characters. The more I looked at books and other films, the more I realized that there was more for me out there to explore and create. Disney would have been very limiting.
Brutal As Hell: What has been your most challenging piece of work to date?
Robert Morris: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I don’t really look at a finished piece as being challenging. Every piece I do has its own series of challenges along the way that contribute to making it a great end result. So I suppose an answer to your question would be which piece has had the most challenges? This is even difficult for me to answer, as they pretty much all have been challenging. Each successive piece comes easier in a way because I’m more familiar with the techniques I’ve used before. But I also like to challenge myself with each new piece so that I’m pushing the limits of my creativity. I have an idea and I intentionally consider new and interesting ways to realize that idea that may give it more depth and visual appeal. This process is often more satisfying than the finished piece itself.
Brutal As Hell: What is the process that brings your work from your imagination to the so called “canvas”?
Robert Morris: Each idea has a unique process of bringing it to life. And discovering that process is why I love being an artist. I start with a thought or image in my head. Then I build up on that idea until I feel it is something worth investing time into. Then I start to plan out compositions, materials, techniques… basically how I feel this idea would have the best impact I am able to give it. I get to play with all kinds of materials and learn new techniques. Being the perfectionist I am, I won’t use a technique or material to create a piece unless I am confident I have mastered it enough to realize the idea in the best way I can. And most of the time, before I touch any canvas, I have the piece worked out in my head already. Of course, actually creating the piece is its own interesting process where the piece can change infinitely. But I feel it’s important to start with a basic blueprint in order to remain as true to the initial strong idea as possible. I’ve found this process to work very well for me. I trust my instincts a great deal. When I have a solid idea in my head about what I’m creating, the actually process of creating it becomes more organic and allows my mind to wander more freely on a subconscious level. And if something gets added or left behind during this process, it’s usually for a reason.
Brutal As Hell: When it comes to the pieces themselves, how much is involved in the concept and to set up to the shoot? Are you working with a lot of physical materials, or is this a lot of computer editing?
Robert Morris: With my photographs, 90% of the concept is worked out prior to the shoot. Part of the dynamic of working with a model, makeup artist, or any other contributor, is the personal focus they bring. I like to work with that and remain open to something completely unexpected happening and changing the image in ways I could never have planned for. At the same time, I recognize that everyone’s time is valuable, and when I bring others into my projects, I make sure I know exactly what I’m doing and what I’m trying to achieve. It’s a lot like what I was saying before with having a basic blueprint. Concept and setup is most of the work.
I try to work with as many physical materials as possible. There’s just something about working with your hands and photographing a tangible object that is very satisfying for me. I try to find the best use of every tool at my disposal. The computer is just another tool. And as with any tool, it has to be used properly to achieve the best result. I use it sparingly and specifically to enhance whatever is already existing within the image. Ultimately, no matter how it gets there, every element should be supporting the core idea. Especially with my recent photographs, like the “Cnidarian Siren” series or the “Inner Beauty” series, I originally knew I wanted to sculpt by hand the surreal elements in each piece that would contrast the beautiful studio photos of models. I’ve been seeing so much heavily Photoshopped imagery out there. And I really wanted to create some photographs that stood on their own and blurred the line between digital and practical imagery. I really enjoy hearing people argue over what is photoshopped and what is real. It makes me feel like I was successful.
Brutal As Hell: You work in a mind numbing array of mediums. If you had to settle into only one, which would it be and why?
Robert Morris: If I had to choose only one medium, it would definitely be my scratchboard. I have a lot of ideas stirring around in my head. And I love the process of bringing an idea to life in the medium I feel suits it best. There are some who have said to me that you can be good at many things, but only great at one thing. I say, why not aspire for more? That being said, when I first tried scratchboard, I was immediately inspired to create everything, past, present, and future, in this medium. There’s something ingrained into me… almost a fetish of sorts, for black and white line art. I’ve always been captivated by 16th century engravings, especially. I lose myself in the lines and details, as if they are an entire universe. I want to live there and draw everything around me. When I create a scratchboard drawing, that feeling is amplified. It is my religion.
Brutal As Hell: Despite strong recent box office numbers from larger budget horror films that might prove otherwise, horror filmmakers are often criticized as working in a “childish” genre, and a genre of film that is mostly low-brow cinema at best. Do you ever attract criticism from fellow artists for dwelling so much on the things of a darker nature?
Robert Morris: Well, let’s just say that my work isn’t something my mom hangs on her refrigerator any more. Her favorite criticism is “oh, gross”… I’ve certainly fielded my share of questions about why I do what I do, and what’s wrong with me. But not usually from other artists. I think artists generally have a respect for other artists who show genuine focus and skill, no matter the medium or genre. But in relation to film, I think horror has gotten a bad name over the years by the general public because of how easy it’s been to throw in some gratuitous nudity, buckets of gore, or even general cheese in the form of bad filmmaking. With the core purpose of films being entertainment, I think it’s hard for those footing the bill to justify making something purely frightening and dark. I think that artwork hanging on a wall is still treated differently… almost with a certain reverence. And its potential for being the pure honest vision of a single mind is greater. Art can be extremely frightening. And therefore it can retain a certain amount of respect. So many watered down visions of horror films have been made that, though entertaining in some respect, are too easily dismissed as juvenile. I could see this happening to the fine art world, as well, with the plethora of digital tools now available for anyone to call anything art. The saturation is only beginning.
Brutal As Hell: The most striking piece of yours, for myself, is the photo of the girl with her teeth objects in her back. What nightmare inspired that piece?
Robert Morris: That is my most recent piece, and certainly my most popular. I love hearing people’s comments about this one. You see teeth. Others see a vagina. A point of entry… exit… a glimpse at something unseen. My ideas never have a single moment of birth. They evolve over time from everything around me. Part of the idea for this piece resulted from the fear that everything has been done already. There really is nothing original left to create. Images are being rehashed all around. Another part of this idea came from the fact that I find the inside of the body to be almost more beautiful than the outside… hence the title of the piece “Inner Beauty”. I really wanted to challenge myself in several ways to not only create something I felt I hadn’t seen before, but also to work with my hands in tandem with my other skills. As a kid, I can remember discovering the work of artists like Rick Baker and Ray Harryhausen and wondering why their sculpted masterpieces weren’t being hung in museums. Instead, they were utilized for their intended purpose of a single film and then trashed. I was inspired to do the same for my art… painstakingly sculpting and molding objects for that single shutter click. For me, the still photograph is where I wanted them to live. Regardless of the fact that 90% of this piece was created in-camera, people still look at it as a Photoshop piece. And then I smile and look at the leftover hand-sculpted prosthetic hanging in my studio.
Brutal As Hell: What are some of your favorite horror films?
Robert Morris: High School Musical and Sex In The City… especially the scene where that horse was… Sorry, ahem… Growing up, I was obsessed with Stephen King and Clive Barker. It wasn’t so much for the gore factor, but that they seemed to tap into certain primal fears. Needless to say they are both authors, not filmmakers… despite all the films based on their work. H.P. Lovecraft would fit into that category as well for me, if his work wasn’t “unfilmmable”. I find most horror films quite uninteresting. I put them on when I want to turn my brain off for a while, similar to watching a slapstick comedy, with all of it becoming a big mushy blur. For the past several years, the only memorable horror I’ve been watching is Japanese horror films like Pulse and Dark Water (the ORIGINALS before they became American music videos). The Japanese seem to understand the art of psychological fear that trumps however many gallons of pig’s blood you can conjure up. But some of the old tried and true I turn to for film horror are David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, and even David Lynch. Still, a lot of the horror I like is more like art to me. The work of directors like Jan Svankmajer, Brothers Quay, and even Elias Merhidge’s “Begotten” is more beautiful and pure than horrific. I do love film, though, and perhaps one day I can team up with Clive and redeem some of the roots of true horror.
Brutal As Hell: Are there any projects you’re currently working on, or upcoming exhibits that we should be on the lookout for?
Robert Morris: As I’m writing this, I’m being swept away to Michigan to work on Michael Moore’s next film as Graphics Supervisor. That’s my day job. I can’t say much about it, but they are calling it a “horror film”. It’s a very exciting opportunity, but unfortunately my time may be quite limited this summer for forwarding my own art projects. I’ve been working on several new series of both photos and drawings, as well as some experimental video projects. Suffice to say they will have a similar feel to my other recent series, but hopefully will avoid any feeling that I’m repeating myself. These are all ideas I’ve had for some time that now feel like they are ready to be realized properly. I hate to go into too much detail about a project before it is complete because you never really know where it will end up. There are no exhibits scheduled as of right now, however, I will definitely be setting some up once the new artwork is closer to a finish date. Details will always be updated on my official web site (www.mechanicalwhispers.com). Aside from that, I’m doing all the post work for a music video for Casey Shea (www.caseysheamusic.com) as well as developing a music video for Satanicide (www.myspace.com/satanicide). There are tens of other projects in various stages of development, but if I were to list (or even think about) them all, I believe my head would explode.
Brutal As Hell: Any last words before this interview self destructs?
Robert Morris: Thank you for all your great questions and for your interest in my work. People who want to keep up with my projects can do so via my main web site, but I’m also on Beinart.org, DeviantArt, MySpace, ModelMayhem, VampireFreaks, IMDB, YouTube, and probably a few others I’m forgetting about. Just search for “Mechanical Whispers” and it’s likely I’m there.
Brutal As Hell: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We’re looking forward to seeing more! Everyone else – make sure to check out Robert’s art below and visit his website at www.mechanicalwhispers.com