Annie Morris transforms grief into colourful, precarious sculptures

art

Charlotte Jansen

Annie Morris, installation view of the Oscar Niemeyer Pavilion at Chateau La Coste, 2022. Photo by Stéphane Aboudaram | WE ARE CONTENT(S). Courtesy of Chateau La Coste.

Annie Morris, installation view at Chateau La Coste, 2022. Photo by Stéphane Aboudaram | WE ARE CONTENT(S). Courtesy of Chateau La Coste.

An ice cream shop pops up at the end of the road leading to Annie Morris’ studio in north London. In the summer, it attracts long lines of customers who show up with skittles full of brightly colored balls. Sooner or later someone’s treat tips and falls: in every moment of ecstasy lies the potential for loss and despair.

Morris perfectly captures this feeling in her drawings, thread-based works and sculptures (for which she is best known). Although the British artist draws inspiration from her own trauma, she conjures up universal feelings of fragility and fears that happiness is about to be turned upside down. “I think so many artists find that their best work comes from tragedy,” Morris said. “I have a friend who says, ‘Don’t be happy, you’ll never do anything good!'”

Portrait of Annie Morris at Chateau La Coste, 2022. Photo by Idris Khan.

The artist walked in non-stop circles around an army of her dizzying ‘Stack’ sculptures that fill her studio – a former hummus factory in Stoke Newington. To create the sculptures, she carves rough spheres in foam, layers them with sand and plaster (and more recently bronze), and finally paints them bright colors. Morris then “stacks” the spheres seamlessly at different heights and invisibly connects them with steel. This last step creates the illusion of a balancing act and makes her monumental constructions appear as precarious as a pile of children’s building blocks.

Morris had just returned from the opening of her latest solo exhibition at Chateau La Coste in Aix-en-Provence, France. The exhibition features new bronze and foam sculptures, oil pencil drawings and a monumental new tapestry. They are all displayed in and around the Center for Contemporary Art’s pavilion designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Overall, Morris’ sensual pieces create dialogues of colour, form, light and space within the clean, curved glass and straight, concrete lines of Niemeyer’s architecture.

Annie Morris, installation view of the Oscar Niemeyer Pavilion at Chateau La Coste, 2022. Photo by Stéphane Aboudaram | WE ARE CONTENT(S). Courtesy of Chateau La Coste.

At first glance, Morris’ work exudes a defiant and jubilant optimism. They vibrate with life. But the artist began crafting her signature “stacks” almost a decade ago, whose spherical shapes reflect the shape of the pregnancy she lost in 2014. Morris applies raw pigments to her, creating intense and undeniably uplifting hues. Her color combinations, she said, derive from intuition, experimentation and play.

Over the years, the “Stacks” have become more vivid and lifelike in form, more ambitious in size and structure: Morris permanently installed her largest bronze to date in the gardens of Chateau La Coste. For this new work, she wanted to keep the vibrant colors of the raw pigments she used with her foam balls. To this end, she fired natural sulphates and nitrates onto her bronze surfaces. Its voluminous, two-metre-tall tower now rises brightly against the backdrop of the French countryside.

Morris refers to their “stacks” as “characters.” She remarked, “When I’m surrounded by them in the studio, they definitely talk to each other.” Morris has started presenting them in pairs to reinforce their cheerful connections and sharing. They demonstrate their figurative essence as they seem to dance drunkenly in the sky.

Annie Morris, installation view at Chateau La Coste, 2022. Photo by Stéphane Aboudaram | WE ARE CONTENT(S). Courtesy of Chateau La Coste.

Nevertheless, the creation of the pieces remains “extremely important” for the artist, because the “earth-moving experience shaped her”. “As I move through life and create these sculptures, it’s a way of remembering this lost thing — it’s kind of very comforting,” Morris said. “I think that’s why I’m still interested in continuing them because it’s still so relevant to me to keep that part of me alive.”

Following her first institutional solo exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, When a Happy Thing Falls, and her participation in Frieze Sculpture last year, Morris’ exhibition in France is something of a homecoming for the Stack sculptures as well. Trained for five years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, the artist honed the foundations of her sculptural practice under the tutelage of Arte Povera pioneer Giuseppe Penone. “The school was exceptional, it was very much about trying things, playing with materials – it was really hands-on,” Morris said.

At this time, Morris mainly made oversized owl sculptures. Fascinated by its shape, she made one out of red clay with Penone. Morris also threw raw pigments — rudimentary sepia tones created with dozens of crushed pencils — onto the canvas that fit her art student’s budget better than the lush, stunning shades of cobalt and turquoise she now uses regularly.

When the artist returned to the UK to continue her studies at the Slade, she briefly abandoned her experiments with raw pigments and only returned to the strategy when she began making the ‘stacks’. “I wanted to keep the fragility of that beautiful texture, that dryness, that fragility that you get from this raw pigment,” she said.

France is also a part-time home for Morris; her husband, fellow artist and frequent collaborator Idris Khan (the two plan to put on a double show next year); and her two children. Ten years ago the couple started renovating an old farmhouse and barn overlooking a vineyard in Bergerac in the Dordogne with a studio in a former wine shop. “It feels a lot like part of the landscape there, you can tell the long grasses turning bright red in early August,” Morris said. Her ideas for colors and their combinations often come from this rural setting or from the Sussex countryside in the English countryside, where Morris and her family spend many weekends. Morris sees herself as part of a line of artists – she mentions Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tàpies – who distill color and composition into their simplest forms and transform them into independent, highly emotional forces.

Always keen to explore space “somewhere between painting and sculpture”, all Morris’ works are rooted in the spontaneous, rapid preparatory sketches and drawings she makes with materials ranging from ballpoint pens to colored pencils to oil pencils. Every day in the studio begins with drawing. Twelve of Morris’ drawings are now on display at Chateau La Coste. Their lively, springy lines are reminiscent of paintings by Philip Guston or drawings by Willem de Kooning.

Annie Morris, installation view of the Oscar Niemeyer Pavilion at Chateau La Coste, 2022. Photo by Stéphane Aboudaram | WE ARE CONTENT(S). Courtesy of Chateau La Coste.

Morris’ improvised, fluid energy spills into her lush sculptures and playful tapestries; a central piece of the new exhibition is a large, hand-embroidered, semi-abstract piece entitled red road (2022) – her largest and most ambitious tapestry to date. “It was incredibly time-consuming, despite coming from an extremely quick, spontaneous drawing, but I wasn’t even sure I would finish it in time!” she said.

red road depicts surreal, expressionless female figures with flowers where faces should be. The composition is a kind of double portrait based on the artist and her mother. The sculptural threadlines themselves bring the tapestry to life. It documents a “sad incident involving my parents,” Morris said. She wanted to convey the feeling that “flowers are so ephemeral – their beauty only exists for such a short time and then it decays and is gone. I love the fact that in the drawings, the emotions of the female character are conveyed through the wilting petals.”

Annie Morris, installation view of the Oscar Niemeyer Pavilion at Chateau La Coste, 2022. Photo by Stéphane Aboudaram | WE ARE CONTENT(S). Courtesy of Chateau La Coste.

Like the ice cream parlor waiters who put smiles on faces all summer long with their portable stacks of melting sugar, Morris is unique in turning sad moments into experiences that “evoke hope and energy to heal, to inspire and uplift the soul,” said Georgina Cohen, a Gagosian director and curator of the exhibition at Chateau La Coste.

“When you go through something immense, find out what’s inside you,” Morris mused. “We were born and we’re here for such a short time – it all goes by so quickly. We all experience grief, it’s all around us – it’s hard to close your eyes to it, it’s there, it looms in front of you – we try to ward it off, but we have to deal with it. I wanted to create something that is the opposite – a world, a journey that takes you away from it.”

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