—”Park Ave”

Lily Morris, like most 20somethings, stumbled through adolescence under the thrilling and alarming advance of social media. She’s come to see the social networks, with their viral memes and advertising campaigns, as anthropological barometers of our culture. She wonders: With this public archive of moods and moments in individuals’ lives, could we look back and surmise something of our own collective unconsciousness — as a culture, and as a species? After all, Morris says, “we’re all just really smart monkeys, frantically filling spaces with stuff.”

Morris with “Celebrity III”

But Morris isn’t an anthropologist by trade, she’s an artist — so she’s working the question out through brushstrokes. In the calm and spaciousness of her large-format oils, classic portraiture is sucked into a psychedelic vortex, figurative realism explodes into a flourish of foliage. Vibrant color winds itself through shadows like a house fire — it’s all so bizarre and beautiful that you can’t look away.

Morris loves social media. She calls it “visual food,” and she “hunts around in the cracks of people’s lives” for elements that inspire her work. “The intimacy and the clumsiness of it are just incredible,” she says. “It’s a window into people’s lives, and you can see the person they want to be and you can see the person they are that doesn’t align, and I’m sure everyone has seen that of me. It’s humiliating and empowering all at once, and just so fascinating.”

It’s a type of anthropology, really, so it’s no surprise that the human form takes center stage in most of her work. “I’ve always been focused on classic portraiture, and whatever I do comes out of a relationship to the body and form and human experience,” Morris says. She opens her subjects up to the human experience by placing them in resting or vulnerable physical positions that raise the question, Who are we when no one is watching?

“Yachting”

“I find myself depicting people at a moment when their social interface falls away and they exist in a state of innocence,” Morris says, “free from the need to externalize and define themselves consciously and culturally.”

American culture, particularly with the advent of social media, has a lot to do with externalizing the self, Morris says. We curate the parts of our lives we wish to define us, and publish them to the world. “You sort of learn who you are by collecting a charm bracelet of these external things,” she says. “Something I’m interested in is shaking the credibility that’s in all of that.”

In order to do so, Morris harnessed our culture’s homegrown and most beloved archetype: the beguiling and elusive American Dream. Morris’ “American Dream” series sprang to life during the 2016 election, while she was a resident at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, N.Y. “I was feeling a little disturbed during the election period, from both sides,” Morris admits. “It was just a steady cannon of low-vibrational behavior.” The compromised values, the desperate clawing, the sheer circus of it all made Morris wonder: What exactly is it that we are culturally encouraged to strive for?

“Country Home”

The series takes items of luxury, a “plastic Darth Vader yacht” or an HGTV-worthy dream home, then throws a wrench in the visual narrative with a profound sense of loneliness, or a dead deer in the pool. It interrupts the steady stream of lifestyles impressed upon us by social media, and reminds us that real life is never quite so glamorous. “You’re being sold a fantasy life on Instagram, but what happens when you try to live that as a clumsy human being?” Morris says.

Lately she’s been particularly interested in the idea of celebrity. “It’s not hard with the Internet now to create your own momentum and your own little celebrity. You can brand yourself and get that kind of emotional food from the world if you want it,” Morris says. “But at some point you lose control over your identity, and become something to be consumed.”

“Celebrity”

Morris’ painting “Celebrity” depicts a collapsed woman in a silky gown, looking out into the expanse of a dark night as threatening eyes glow back at her. “I was imagining how intense and scary it would be to be in that position,” Morris says. “To be elevated on that level, to be expected to withstand a tremendous amount of judgment, and be watched.”

It’s not hard to imagine, either, because all of us on social media are being watched. Not just for the entertainment of our friends, but as consumers, with tracking data and algorithms constantly calculating what we might like to see next. Morris’ latest series is inspired by the trends she notices creeping into her own user experience. “I am very interested in travel and seeing this magical blue ball that we live on, so the algorithms that track my Internet behavior tend to bombard me with nature and travel photos,” she says.

Her feeds produced one iconic image over and over again: the alluring view from an airplane window. “It’s the classic beginning of the ‘I’m living the dream’ photo diary on social media people use to paint a picture of their vacation,” she says.

Morris decided to paint her own version. Except in her rendition, the views are more cryptic: foliage bearing down against the pressurized windows. It’s beautiful, but at the same time disconcerting — you can faintly hear the passengers waking from their Xanax-induced slumbers and shouting, “Where is this plane going, anyway?”

“Lost”

That’s the thing about social media. We were all rushed onboard without a return ticket. We’re all zooming forward at 500 knots, trying to figure out the destination as we go. But we’re all in it together, and for Morris, there’s a lot of compassion in that. “I don’t want any of my work to be a condemnation of humanity,” Morris says. “We’re just scaled-up babies stumbling around trying our best. We’re learning as a society how to navigate this life.”

And even if we can’t pinpoint a destination, we can look back at the trail of exhaust and see the trends, the images and opinions, frozen in the atmosphere behind us. “You can watch our collective thinking shift and evolve in real time,” Morris says. “It feels like being a part of one mind.”

It’s hard to tell if that’s unifying or terrifying. But as Jung said, “The mirror does not flatter; it faithfully shows whatever looks into it.” And still, the face is unmistakably our own.

 

Lily Morris will have a solo show this July at A Gallery in Oak Bluffs. Opening 5 to 7 pm, July 1. For more information, visit lily-morris.com or agallerymv.com.

 

Kelsey Perrett left her Associate Editor position at the MVTimes and Arts & Ideas Magazine to travel South America and work as a freelance writer. She now lives in her Subaru down by the river.