Annie Morris Turns Grief into Colorful, Precarious Sculptures

Harms

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 appears at the end of the road that leads to Annie Morris’s North London studio. In the summer, it attracts long lines of customers, who emerge holding cones teetering with brightly colored globes. Sooner or later, someone’s treat topples and falls: Contained in every moment of ecstasy is the potential for loss and despair.

Morris perfectly captures this sentiment throughout her drawings, thread-based works, and sculptures (for which she is best known). Although the British artist takes inspiration from her own traumas, she conjures universal feelings of fragility and fears that happiness may be upended. “I think so many artists find through tragedy their best work comes about,” Morris said. “I have a friend who says, ‘Don’t be happy, you’ll never make anything good!'”

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

The artist walked in continuous circles around an army of her vertiginous “Stack” sculptures, which fill her studio—a former hummus factory in Stoke Newington. To make the sculptures, she carves crude spheres into foam, layers them with sand and plaster (and, more recently, bronze), and finally paints them in lucid colors. Morris then seamlessly “stacks” the balls at varying heights and joins them invisibly with steel. This final step creates the illusion of a balancing act, making her monumental structures appear as precarious as a pile of children’s building blocks.

Morris had just returned from opening her latest solo exhibition at Chateau La Coste in Aix-en-Provence, France. The show features new sculptures in bronze and foam, oil stick drawings, and a monumental new tapestry. They are all displayed in and around the contemporary art center’s Oscar Niemeyer–designed pavilion. Altogether, Morris’s sensuous pieces generate dialogues about color, shape, light, and space within the clean, curving 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 sight, Morris’s works emanate a defiant and jubilant sense of optimism. They vibrate with life. Yet the artist began making her signature “Stacks” nearly a decade ago, their spherical forms echoing the shape of the pregnancy she lost in 2014. Morris applies raw pigment to them, 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 animated and lifelike in form, more ambitious in scale and structure: In the gardens of Chateau La Coste, Morris permanently installed her largest bronze to date. For this new work, she wanted to retain the vivacious colors of the raw pigments she used with her foam spheres. To achieve this end, she burned natural sulfates and nitrates onto her bronze surfaces. Her voluminous, six-foot-tall tower now teeters brightly against the backdrop of the French countryside.

Morris refers to her “Stacks” as “characters.” She noted, “When I’m surrounded by them in the studio, they definitely have conversations with each other.” Morris has begun to present them in pairs to amplify their joyful connections and exchanges. As they appear to drunkenly dance skyward, they demonstrate their figurative essence.

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

Yet the pieces’ genesis remains “extremely important” to the artist, because the “earth-shattering experience defined” her. “As I move through life and have been creating these sculptures, it’s a way of remembering this thing that was lost—it’s very comforting somehow,” Morris said. “I think continuing to make them still interests me because of that, because it’s still so relevant to me to keep this 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’s exhibition in France is also something of a homecoming for the “Stack” sculptures in particular. The artist trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris for five years, honing the foundations of her sculpture practice under the tutelage of Arte Povera pioneer Giuseppe Penone. “The school was extraordinary, it was very much about trying things, playing with materials—it was really hands-on,” Morris said.

At the time, Morris was mostly making oversized sculptures of owls. She was fascinated with their shape and made one in red clay with Penone. Morris was also throwing raw pigment—rudimentary sepia tones made with dozens of crushed pencils—at canvas, which fit her art student budget better than the luxuriant, breathtaking shades of cobalt and turquoise she now regularly uses.

When the artist returned to the UK to continue her studies at the Slade, she briefly abandoned her experiments with raw pigment, only returning to the strategy when she began making the “Stacks.” “I wanted to retain the fragility of that beautiful texture, that dryness, that fragility you get from that raw pigment,” she said.

France is also a part-time home for Morris; her husband, fellow artist, and frequent collaborator Idris Khan (the two are planning to stage a dual exhibition next year); and their two children. Ten years ago, the couple began renovating an old farmhouse and barn overlooking a vineyard in Bergerac, in the Dordogne, with a studio in a former wine store. “It feels very much part of the landscape there, you notice the way the long grasses turn bright red at the beginning of August,” Morris said. Her ideas for colors and their combinations often derive from this rural setting, or from the environs of Sussex, in the English countryside, where Morris and her family spend many weekends. Morris views herself as part of a trajectory of artists—she mentions Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tàpies—who distill color and composition into their simplest forms and turn them into independent, powerfully emotive forces.

Always interested in exploring the space “somewhere between painting and sculpture,” Morris’s works are all rooted in the spontaneous, quick preparatory sketches and drawings she makes with materials ranging from biro to coloring pencils to oil sticks. Each day at the studio begins with drawing. Twelve of Morris’s drawings are now on view at Chateau La Coste. Their buoyant, bouncy lines evoke Philip Guston paintings or Willem de Kooning drawings.

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’s impromptu, fluid energy spills into her exuberant sculptures and playful tapestries; the 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 unbelievably time-consuming despite the fact it came from an extremely quick, spontaneous drawing, but I wasn’t even sure I would finish it on time!” she said.

Red Road features surreal, expressionless female figures with flowers where faces should be. The composition is a dual portrait of sorts, based on the artist and her mother. The sculptural lines of thread itself bring the tapestry to life. It documents a “sad incident involving my parents,” Morris said. She wanted to convey the sense that “flowers are so temporary—their beauty exists for such a short time and then it decays and is gone. I love the fact that in the drawings the emotion within the female figure is 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 servers at the ice-cream shop, who bring smiles to faces all summer long with their handheld stacks of melting sugar, Morris is uniquely skilled in turning sorrowful moments into experiences that “evoke hope and energy to heal, to inspire, and uplift the soul,” as Georgina Cohen, the Gagosian director and curator of the exhibition at Chateau La Coste, said.

“When you go through something immense you find out what’s inside you,” Morris reflected. “We’re 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 is there, hovering in front of you—we try to ward it off but we have to deal with it. I wanted to create something that was the opposite—a world, a journey that takes you away from that.”

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