Kaeleigh Morrill It’s about re-empowering and re-injecting the existing failed world with a new kind of light.
By Mary Truong October 14th, 2020
In mainstream media, representations of the “Wild West” are typically charged with rugged individualism and hypermasculine, virile energy. In contrast, Kaeleigh Morrill depicts a different frontier that she names a “Western Dreamland” in which vibrantly colored female figures and queer bodies twist with feverish energy upon horses amongst mountains layered in colors. Both worlds contain depictions of powerful figures, but the American cowboy as heroic masculinity has mostly been exposed as an idealized social artifice (think Richard Prince’s Cowboys Series which cropped cowboy images from Marlboro advertisements) whereas Morrill’s women and queer figures were never realized in this landscape.
“It’s about re-empowering and re-injecting the existing failed world with a new kind of light.”
Injecting women and queer people into the “closed off” space of American Western iconography is a process of reclamation for Morrill. She acknowledges that she could build an entirely new fantastical setting with women and queer figures at forefront, but she says that there is something powerful in giving people agency in a space they were previously excluded from. Morill hopes that her artwork might “transport” her audience into a more inclusive world that allows people to feel “powerful and safe and heard.” This transportation involves a myriad of formats: for her thesis, Morrill created a video piece, two large paintings, a sculpture, and a zine. By using different media, Morrill says she provides different “access points” into her world.
Although Morrill emphasizes how many stories and histories were “silenced” in our modern understanding of the American West, there is a conspicuous lack racial conceptions within her Western Dreamland. The prevailing depiction of the American West is white masculinity or even the domination of whiteness due to Manifest Destiny (e.g. cowboys versus Indians) despite the historical actuality of many Black cowboys, Mexican vaqueros, and complex relations with American Indians (some who were cattle ranchers or cowboys). These histories, like histories of women and queerness, have been silenced in the current representation of the American West, yet the colorful swirls that compose Morrill’s figures remain silent on this matter. However, through her research, Morrill is well aware of the significant nature of race within the American West and how her art may be deficient in this aspect.
Morrill explains the lack racial emphasis as a matter of identification in her work: as someone who identifies with queerness and the female body, she chooses to focus how those narratives are excluded. As a white person exploring the predominantly white space of modern media about the American West, it is more difficult for her to work through a racial lens when she hasn’t been excluded in this dimension. Maria Lassnig’s theory on “body awareness” arcs Morrill’s practice in this direction. In these “body aware” paintings, Lassnig would paint self-portraits and depict body parts according to how they felt during painting; if Lassnig did not sense a body part, she would exclude it from the portrait. Morrill describes a similar conscious process in her body when making her own paintings, saying that although the figures are not self-representational, “I definitely try to channel portraying the interior self onto the exterior canvas.” Through this lens, it is understandable why Morrill would focus her artwork on gender and sexuality.
“Being heard is a general source of power for anyone.”
Morrill often stresses the importance of empowering people who were previously silenced in her artwork. She says, “my power is channeled through being heard… In general, people feel powerful when they’re heard by others, and [are] not judged, and [are] free to say, or do, or express themselves in any way.” Although she notes that she cannot define how someone may feel when entering her art, she hopes that she creates an accessible space where they can be “loud and powerful and accepted.”
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