#QueeringLockdown The Orange Boy: a portrait of George Morl. At the intersections between autism, queerness and art

George Morl, ‘Affect Touch’, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: Hey George, who are you and what you do?

George Morl: My name is George Morl (Aka Orange Boy & Edvardo Shadalow) and I come from Basildon, UK. My pronouns are They/He. “I see myself as genderfluid.” I am an artist who produces paintings, sculptures, photographic installations, as well as curating exhibitions, writing articles, and poetry.

My work explores society’s navigations of human connection under modernising technology, documenting our attempts in reaching affection, validation, intimacy and emotional reverence. Merging both imagination, persona, performance and autistic vision, I seek to communicate and reveal comments about art and neuroscience, digitally-connected societies, the barriers and failures in systems designed to facilitate spaces for marginalised communities, perspectives on isolation, technology and bodies, our pursuits in ‘beauty’ or hope, composing testimonies of those seeking to be understood or loved.

George Morl, ‘Intimacy In An Age of Physical Absence – 2020‘, 2020.
Mixed media
. 172 x 116 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: How has Lockdown affected your life/work?

George Morl: Lockdown during the pandemic has been one of mixed experience, having worked throughout as a key worker in a public space, in a high-risk environment. I’ve seen how people’s behaviour has changed both in the context of physical spaces and those online. I’ve felt that amongst all the fears and anxieties of the pandemic on the outside world, there has been an internal struggle for intimacy and closeness, probably more intensified in the queer community. The modes in which some rely upon intimacy or support have changed and depleted during lockdown.

This is something very intricately linked between queer and autistic experience out of a pandemic experience. What a lot of non-queer and non-autistic people don’t realise is that visibility and access is not something we can take for granted. We rely upon either dedicated queer spaces for communal relations and socialisation; often the online world becomes a retreat for dating apps to connect with other queer people to.

During lockdown I was observing the immediacy of conversations on dating apps some within very close proximity. This was how ‘Intimacy In An Age of Physical Absence-2020‘ (2020) was conceived, tackling the experience of the lonely or isolated ornamental male figure. The subject portrayed looks outwards longing for touch yet surrounded by immense anxiety. Collages around the central figure are newspaper cuttings referencing the pandemic in the news shortly before lockdown, contrasted with renaissance images of angels, cherubs, and images of babies being nurtured by mothers. I see it as this ode of a memoriam work not of life but present struggle.

George Morl, ‘Orange Boy’ , 2018. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: What are the intersections between Autism and Queerness?

George Morl: The double rainbow represents those who identify as both autistic and LGBTQIAA+. Because many autistic people tend to reject societal norms, we are more likely to locate and express ourselves in unique ways. We are also more likely to identify as being queer and being gender-diverse. As a teenager, I became acutely aware that I did not feel fully one being or gender, and that I process my environment and mental landscape in a continuous flux. I constantly question my existence and relations to others. Now I don’t feel like I need to define myself as such for these reasons as there is not a static state I reside in. 

Even when it comes to relationships, I question the presumption of monogamous relations and don’t feel the need to be around people with intense social contact. I also don’t perceive people through the lens of traditional imposed ‘societal values’ such as wealth, appearance, occupation, or status. Something what I have experienced being autistic is that our deep appreciation and expressions of emotions are often misunderstood by other queer people especially where non- committal relations are prioritised. When I use the term ‘love’ it is out of an expression of gratitude and appreciation, not implicitly in the romantic sense.

George Morl, Trans Autistic Matrix [TAM] / or Autistic Trans Matrix [ATM], 2020. Courtesy the artist.

In terms of autism and experience of queerness, whether people realise it or not the entirety of life exists and depends upon a spectrum. The cycle of life is a spectrum. The way light is absorbed by a plant. How the colours of petals and fruits the plant produces refracts colours into our eyes. How as individuals we experience these colours is unique. It depends upon our own circumstances. For those who are Neurodivergent, blind, or deaf, our senses, and in perceiving our environments are exponentially different to wider society. This is the same I feel with gender and sexuality. It exists on a spectrum.

Francesco Ferranti: How has a significantly ableist lens altered our perception of art history?

George Morl: The vast majority of art history has been defined by an abled bodied lens centred upon the protraction of ratio which exaggerated features or proportions due to the teachings of Ancient Greek culture. I think people are completely unaware of how this has manipulated and affected society. Artists were often commissioned to produce representations of figures that fit with the ideology of the state. The golden mean or ratio often became a tool to present the idealist male warrior or beauty. This was something similarly adopted by the Nazis during the Aryan race. During the Second World War, both the Nazis and Russians began experimenting with injecting steroids into soldiers. Over time this became sublimated into the media, through body builders in competitions eventually becoming absorbed by actors in stoic male cinema of the 1980’s; this was successfully explored in the book Adonis Complex’ by Nicholas Pope.

George Morl, ‘Symptomology of a Basildon Boy‘, 2018. Mixed media. 189.5 x 133 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Presently social media and electronic devices now mean everyone can edit and manipulate their images often in attempt to align with men’s societal ideals, sometimes consuming body-enhancing supplements or using anabolic steroids bought online to change muscle mass, explored in the painting ‘Symptomology of a Basildon Boy‘ (2018).

Often in the making of my works I inhabit various online social media and dating app accounts, where I merge the observation in the exchange of photos and conversations or data, my experiences and sensations of intimacy in being ND (Neurodivergent), and my sensory perceptions of the flows, rhythms, and patterns of my environments, where these all formally converge and form a work through the combination of physical and virtual networks. Having matured in the South Essex landscape, the rhythms of Brutalist architecture in the Basildon New Towns, as well as the harmonic movements, sounds in the horizons and soundscapes of rural fields have informed the foundations of my work. Ultimately the way in which I perceive the world is subjective and a matrix of multiple layers. I want my work to embody something more than visual, to be personal and musical, beyond a static work. 

Duncan Grant, ‘Bathing’, 1911. Oil paint on canvas. 2286 × 3061 mm. © Tate

This is why I have so much affection for ‘Beat poetry’ which was hugely esoteric, rhythmic, and the perceptive factors which marked Duncan Grant’s ‘Bathing’ and the oeuvre of Francis Bacon; movement of the body in motion and how that is understood to the audience was prioritised, whether through repetitive motifs or through the manipulation of medium and pictorial devices. This is why I am fascinated by social media, the act of body enhancements, and experience of touch as an ND person. In essence, there becomes a duality in experience and emotion. I see my work as both a continuous rhythm and an equation where singular work may combine to form a collective output and vision. This is what I define as a ‘Relationary Practice or Principle’.

To put into personal perspective, the reality of ND people’s experiences of environments or bodies are often informed by our senses. When the tool to measure accuracy according to the majority is removed or altered the perception of reality changes. For example, in the navigation of sexuality during adolescence due to hypersensitivity I have to approach environments and physical intimacy differently. I am able to feel my bones vibrate when they move, feel blood pulsate, and a touch can feel more elevated in pain. I see bodies as moving networks. They are often gender fluid, fragmented, and morphed.

My work rejects ideals where those with physical disabilities, Neurodivergence, deaf, blind, or those with sensory processing, our intensified or lessened senses means our experience of our bodies and of environments are different. Our reality often exists through differing perceptions which inform our experience. It is only through listening to our perceptions that others learn and validate our experiences.  How do people with disabilities fit into the lens of art history, ideals around beauty, and in the case for me within the culture of queerness?

George Morl, ‘Dopamine Darlings‘, 2020. Mixed media. 172 x 116 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: What is the link between queer intimacy and the exchange of emotions?

George Morl: This idea of beauty in relation to emotion is something which has always interested me. Being ND and queer, our expressions of emotion, deep sincerity, and appreciation for others, though we may not necessarily want intense contact with others, is often misunderstood especially by other queer people. This paradox is also intrinsically linked with wider queer experience. From an inner fear of rejection or insecurity, some queer people may look for validation through casual relations or across social media through the projection of bodies for self-esteem. This is evidenced by Instagram accounts open to the public where individuals may project edited photographs of their bodies with hashtags alluding to expressions of youth for online validation. I feel it becomes a problem when someone is using it as a means to manage difficult emotions. As explored in the book The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs, when we find ourselves with high levels of anxiety, depression, or loneliness we may look to external sources to suppress these. Through fear of ourselves we often discard others out of inner insecurity. When I hear fellow queer people explain to me about this on the surface it is due to not wanting to associate with heteronormative relationships, but then why is it then they still find themselves dissatisfied emotionally. Outside of these moment encounters and exchanges in intimacy as explored in ‘Dopamine Darlings’ (2020), do we actually form meaningful authentic connections?

George Morl, ‘Precious Boys#3′, 2018. Installation view, Southend Museum 
Mixed media. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: What does accessibility mean to you?

George Morl: Disability activism in queer culture is largely focussed around physical or mental health conditions. As a result, we find ourselves often navigating queer experience through the lens of abled bodied voices who are not always able to identify the barriers and concerns of others; often we are forced to examine disability through a physical lens. For those with learning, cognitive, or neurodivergent conditions, sensory processing and communication barriers may affect our ability to share in platforms in which queer people connect and meet. Interactions with LGBTQ+ student societies are not always ASD accessible, dedicated LGBTQ+ events at night clubs often are characterised by loud environments or intense contact where instances of sexual assault maybe minimised as sexual liberation and dating apps may be difficult for some people with sensory processing issues as we may have to familiarise ourselves with an environment, or even within intimacy I sometimes have to sensitise myself to another’s touch. Immediacy in digital lives doesn’t always allow for this. We may require a safe space. If as an autistic person we equally want to experience this sense of belonging, affection, or intimacy where do we go?

George Morl, ‘Future Touch#2 (Synapse)‘, 2019. Inkjet Photograph. Courtesy the artist.

This complicated search for belonging and affection is complicated in queer history. As disabled LGBTQ+ people, we can sometimes see ourselves as outsiders within an already marginalised community. In the same way queer people may have had to disguise or perform versions of themselves to avoid or minimise prejudice, autistics may ‘mask’, adjusting our behaviour, mimicking or staging communication, attempting to align with norms in social relations to fit in.

George Morl, ‘Precious Boys#2‘, 2016. Installation view, Turner Contemporary Gallery. Mixed media. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: Why is the creation of fictional landscapes central to your artistic practice? 

George Morl: Through creative imagination I explore alternative episodes where people reach human interaction and allow myself and others in fantasy landscapes to be accepted or to be protected. I communicate empathy or the possibility or avenue for it through my artworks.

Precious Boys#2‘ (2016), which merges imagination and evidence, is a series of sculptures exploring the effects of post-industrialism and isolation in male youths and adolescence in urban landscapes. Merging the aesthetics of romantic portrayals of young men in paintings of Francis de Goya picking fruit or blowing up sheep bladders in play, these organic forms, made through plaster casts of medical equipment and sexual health wellbeing products, contrast the act of seeking intimacy and affection, which are inherent in the original objects.

Resting upon a mass of pigmented salt and sugars which change under light levels, the solutions comprise of alum salts reminiscent of Victorian children’s pain relief medicines as well as previous treatments for HIV. The decorative alluring application of industrial paint for bodily forms imply an individual’s search for closeness under the fragility of mental suffering, reflecting upon the social perceptions of masculinity and how this can lead to a lonely wasteland of youth. As a whole, personally this is a contemporary vigil for telling the tale of young men who are seeking affection whilst in emotional pain, and is a memorial for men whose lives are lost amongst the railways and rural landscapes in Essex.

George Morl, ‘Edvardo Shadalow‘, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: What does the colour orange mean to you? The Orange Boy is one of the different personas or avatars you use to express your identity. Can you tell us more about this artistic device?

George Morl: As a child in a large family my mother dressed my siblings and myself in bright colours to be seen amongst crowds. Though I rebelled against this early in teenage years, this resurfaced following family bereavement after having looked at a photograph of me as a child smiling in orange clothes. The colour thereon became a repetitive motif in which I associate orange with comfort and peace. Through this I become the ‘Orange Boy’ dressing in orange costumes.

Often the way I use persona and image are layered. Persona’s themselves have personas. Sometimes they are solutions to seek out external comfort. I see them as states of being not characters. Essentially they are me just with emphasised aspects. For me personas become a means to communicate emotions externally. In the same way being autistic the flows and patterns I see around me inform my work, my persona often forms an approach in which I get audiences to direct their view at me to recognise the layers within myself and my work. In time I began utilising them to explore society’s stereotypes of those with neurological conditions through juxtaposing myself alongside artwork which often explores intimacy, body-image, assault, human connection, gender, as well as queer history’s complicated notion of youth. After psychotherapy, I realised that my associations with dolls I created with agender identities and my genderfluid persona’s as a child was my unconscious need to project my inner feelings about myself. In time I have come closer to myself.

Often I also examine the many depictions of youth in art history to explore gender roles or affection, in which my persona Edvardo Shadalow dresses under the guise of many depictions of children making homage to portraits. One of my favourite works is the portrait of ‘Alfred Dedreux as a Child’ by Theodore Gericault, where the young man has a composure and facial expression that seems way mature for his age. It feels overtly staged, the costume seems in place with the facial expressions, yet out of place of the actual age of the subject. My first portrait as the Orange Boy made homage to this work. As the subject out of my own right, it is me saying I have the right to self-determination, that I also want affection and intimacy, dismantling the negative stereotypes of those with neurological conditions. It says I am autonomous. I am here. Fundamentally in the same way a thimble became a symbol of affection in Peter Pan, orange becomes the substitute or channel for affection. 

[Theodore Gericault, ‘Alfred Dedreux as a Child‘, 1819-1820]. Oil on canvas. 45.7 x 38.1 cm. Courtesy The Met.
George Morl, ‘Orange Boy‘ , 2018. Courtesy the artist.

This was something that manifested to confront a multitude of experiences from childhood. The genderfluid adolescent ‘Edvardo Shadalow’ was born from this need to form a being who was confident and overtly empathic who provided care and compassion to infants in children hospitals or outside. The name derived from the Scandinavian pronunciation of my middle name Edward for Edvard with the ‘o’ representing Orange, with the latter name Shadalow being reclaimed from a seemingly erased familial Jewish ancestry. My practice is essentially about reclaiming lost identity or to identify barriers in spaces or society which exclude others. Many autistic people I meet or communicate with via social media in some way navigate their practice or examine barriers through the image of themselves.

George Morl, ‘#WeShallNotBeRemoved‘, 2020 (2020). Courtesy the artist.
George Morl, ‘#WeShallNotBeRemoved‘, 2020 (2020). Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: Instagram is more than ever an effective tool for social activism. Can you tell us about the #WeShallNotBeRemoved campaign?

George Morl: The ‘#WeShallNotBeRemoved’  social campaign arose from the way in which disabled people were being treated and perceived by wider society in the current pandemic. It was two images, one wearing a mask and one not, posing in front of my painting produced during the lockdown. It was me predicting in two months the lack of nuances in the discussion of access to masks and spaces in public when lockdown would end. Recently I’ve witnessed many individuals on their professional social media handles for political or moral reasons, shaming those for not wearing masks through sharing articles with statuses deriding people as ‘Selfish’, ‘Disrespectful’ for not wearing a mask. Interestingly on their personal accounts in group photos all use of masks and social distancing are absent.

It’s become clear that performance was the motive. Together with misinformation and manipulation these spread due to the lack of actual exchange in dialogue. Without the full explanation for both sides, the shame was encouraging others to shame because disabled people’s voices were being erased. To think retrospectively for another outside of our own experiences is essential. That’s the entity of empathy. The image of me wearing a mask was me saying as an Autistic person though I will wear one, I can emphasise with why another may not be able to wear a mask.

George Morl, ‘Orange Boy in front of a Pill Box in the Essex landscape’, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

Francesco Ferranti: Are you working on some projects at the moment?

George Morl: At the start of the year I was awarded a Firstsite Bursary in which I am exploring the intersections of ‘creative imagination’ as means to confront social isolation for autistics and/or queer autistics. This month with TOW Southend I am exploring the emergence of the network out of Essex, from changing language in Anglo Saxon Essex, emergency of queer telephone support networks in Colchester, Transgender Bars in Southend, amongst the historical inventions of electrical, data centres that emerged from Essex landscape. The project is about how many autistics and trans autistics use virtual spaces to create avatars, express their gender, without language barrier.

Francesco Ferranti: Anything you fancy adding to the conversation?

George Morl: One last point. The experience I refer to autism is how we perceive environments and communication around us. What is often defined and written about autism by non-autistic voices isn’t the autistic experience, especially where they do not have the condition themselves. Negative experience is the response from limitations and barriers by which society and people encourage and uphold due to lack of understanding or change. To me autism is a language and form of perception itself, and like any other linguistic form, we must learn to understand it. To support us, queer people must learn about it, and find alternative approaches where needed. As NYC-based activist and writer Adam Eli argues in the book The New Queer Conscience , “Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere”. Orange and Out x

For more info:

Website: www.georgemorl.com

Instagram: @edvardoshadalow

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