The Independent Collector: John Windsor's Guide to Collecting Contemporary Art. This Week: Dave Morris
Tuesday 09 February 1999
Dave Morris's five-foot-tall sculpture in Ancaster freestone evokes what artists these days call a "multiple response". At first glance, it could be any of several different things. The way out of the confusion is to laugh. Many people do. Morris is not in the least offended.
Humour is rare in British sculpture. You can be just as confused by the sculpture of Moore, Hepworth or Caro without getting so much as a titter out of it.
When the giggles subside, the eye focuses on Morris's voluptuous sags and bulges - the weight distribution (to use a dry term) that occurs whenever nature wraps bulky organisms in sacks so that they can pile themselves in heaps without getting tangled up.
Gravity, his sculpture wittily observes, tends to mould piles of fat pigs or piles of ripe aubergines in the same sinuous way. One squashed on the bottom row wearily drops its snout - or is it its stalk? The one lying on top of it raises itself, as if expecting to have its back scratched. Another nuzzles its stalk into its neighbour's soft flank.
The sculpture's title, Body Boat, is little help in deciphering what the bodies are. But the base is actually a storm-tossed vessel - recognisable to those who know Morris's recent work as part of his cargo theme - and the bodies, as a few seconds' investigation will confirm, are clearly aubergines. Pigs? Breasts? Whatever gave you that idea?
Body Boat is one of three in his "Boat" series, begun last year as he approached 50. Aubergines and chillies in seagoing vessels made their debut only four years ago, in a series of six of his sculptures called "South American Trade".
His work before that, although also concerned with mechanics and loading, was quite different. In the 1980s he used discarded builders' timber to make heavy, somewhat threatening yet absurd constructions, such as Walnut Holding Device and Conker Boring Machine - references to the megalomania of Victorian engineers and to the subsequent decay of heavy industry. He was also inspired by the notebooks of his Uncle Jack, a print compositor whose device to speed the production of biscuits was adopted by Huntley & Palmer in the years before the war.
A couple of years ago, he was making giant "still lifes" from timber and laminates - English ones with wooden crockery, cutlery and bottles, and Moroccan ones with oversize versions of the sugar hammers typical of that country.
He would be better known, and his work more expensive, but for his ruthless habit of abandoning themes for new ones, instead of consolidating them - and for his devotion to teaching. For the past 10 years he has been subject leader in sculpture at Loughborough University. His current theme of travel and cargo dates back to his early years among the granite hills of Malvern in Worcestershire, his 10-mile, twice-daily bus journey to school through the bombed industrial wasteland of Birmingham - and his recurring thought that exotic vegetables could be grown on bomb-sites, under glass, instead of shipped from distant continents.
His boat forms, he says, are metaphors for travel, "whilst the fruit or vegetable forms can be read in the actual or as metaphors for people". So if you thought you saw a nipple, do not feel ashamed.
A retrospective of Morris's work of the past four years is at the Diorama Arts Centre, 34 Osnaburgh Street, London NW1, 22 March-1 April (0171- 916 5467/5468). 'Body Boat' is on show at the Ferrers Centre, Staunton Harold, Ashby De-La Zouch, Leics, to 31 March (01332 865408). Prices: 'Body Boat' is pounds 2,850; 'Mixed Cargo' pounds 2,750. Works at the Diorama are mostly in the pounds 1,000-pounds 1,800 range
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