Artist talk: Saturday, Mar. 9, noon, free

Artspace, Raleigh

Visual artist Brett Morris’s latest body of work is borne out of his belief that art can be found anywhere: You just have to look for it in unexpected places. Those places, for Morris, turned out to be long interstate stretches between Raleigh, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte, which he drove down frequently to visit his parents and his girlfriend’s family.

Over the last two years, Morris has documented the run-down billboards he’s come across during his travels. And while many drivers would pass by these images without a second thought, they caught Morris’s attention as a familiar pattern that began to emerge on his routes.

“Going back and forth to both places, I would see these billboards as landmarks on the way home … and realized there was an opportunity there to turn them into a piece of art,” Morris says.

The resulting series, Monoliths, is on exhibit at Artspace through the end of March. (Morris also gives an artist talk at noon on March 9.) It’s more than just a collection of photographs. Using four-color process and drawing techniques, Morris reimagines the design of the billboards with Expressionist and Pop art aesthetics that mirror the tradition of artists like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

“I felt like if you just took those billboards and put them in a museum and put, like, Robert Rauschenberg’s name on it, you would totally believe that was one of his paintings,” Morris says. “And going to museums and seeing large Abstract Expressionist paintings … it just really brought everything into focus for me. And I was like, ‘This would be a cool thing to pursue.’”

After photographing the billboards, Morris uses Photoshop to remove “extraneous details,” flatten the images, and split the color channels into separate CMYK layers. Those images are translated to eighteen-by-thirty-inch, six-ply museum board. Morris then fills in sections of color, layer by layer, using pen and ink and charcoal. The process was inspired by his experience working at a printmaking shop as a screen printer after graduating from college.

“Kind of the ultimate in screen printing is creating a four-color process print with all four colors—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—working to make every color of the rainbow,” Morris says. “So I decided drawing would probably be an interesting way to continue that process.”

For Morris, Monoliths demonstrates how ordinary and overlooked images can be transformed into art when they are viewed through a creative lens.

“I think that we tend to just walk around with blinders on, and there are little moments that can connect everybody together—just looking at a sunset or a flower, or maybe a crack in the sidewalk,” he says. “There’s this moment of discovery that’s out there in the world, and I think everybody has experienced that at some point in their life. But something that technically might not be beautiful where it is in context, when taken out of that context, can be beautiful and continue to preserve this sense of discovering the world around you.”

Morris credits his involvement with Urban Sketchers Raleigh for providing him with the perspective he needed to recognize the artistic potential for the billboards.

“The thing that inspired me most was just being open to seeing things in the world that kind of get overlooked or passed by and trying to preserve them, in a way,” he says. “Being a part of that group and seeing the way that other people see the city in different ways kind of opened me to seeing the world at large, in little ways, as opportunities to create art.”

Morris has also been exposed to diverse viewpoints in the responses to his own work. For example, because of his particular focus on showcasing dilapidated billboards, some viewers have interpreted Monoliths as a critique of consumerism.

“We’re bombarded with these images every day and have kind of become numb to them,” Morris says. “That is something I wanted to touch on, but the overarching sense that I’m trying to portray is that there are beautiful things out in the world, if you just take the time to look at them.”