Annie Morris and Idris Khan have been a couple for over a decade, a personal union and artistic collaboration celebrated by a first-ever joint show running at the Newlands House Gallery in Petworth, Sussex, until May 7.
“Artist couples are abundant in history,” notes the show’s curator, Maya Binkin, and, coincidentally, just a few miles away, another artist couple, the ceramicist Betty Woodman and her painter husband George Woodman, are the focus of a posthumous joint exhibition at the Charleston farmhouse former home of the Bloomsbury group painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
Binkin has titled the Petworth show “Two Worlds Entwined,” highlighting how such couples often work together and influence one another. In the Woodmans’ case, for example, the entwinement is visible: George sometimes painted Betty’s pots; Betty developed a form of wall-hung ceramic “paintings”. Their palettes fused in a shared enjoyment of the rich Tuscan light and landscape of Antella, their farmhouse home near Florence.
In the case of Morris and Khan, it’s not so obvious. Morris goes in for totemic stacks like oversize chupa chup lollipops or candy floss balls in vivid ultramarines,viridans and ochres, or scrawly naif figures of flower-headed females and wolf-dog males chalked on walls and sewn onto cloth. Khan makes paintings and sculptures that are muted, monochromatic, and multilayered, often incorporating musical scores or linguistic texts blurred by overlaying into eye-teasing illegibility or hidden completely.
Morris creates communicative childlike art. Khan’s work is meditative and introspective to the point of near Trappist silence.
Had they not met, would their separate art worlds have developed differently? “Possibly!” Morris told Artlyst in a written Q and A exchange: “We often find ourselves discussing our works in each other’s studios. Spending time together has brought certain influences and ideas into our works.”
Says Binkin: “Their sources of inspiration differ, and their artistic investigation couldn’t be more separate. Yet there is a shared sympathy in their work, a joint history which relates one to the other.”
During the Covid lockdown, Morris and Khan took refuge in the Sussex countryside, finding shared awareness, says Morris, of how its colours changed with the changing seasons. “Seeing such vivid colours inspired us, resulting in three monochrome stack sculptures and a watercolour series”, works that form part of the backbone of the Newlands House show.
To the uninformed eye, the cross-pollination isn’t evident. And if Sussex light has penetrated these works, it’s not as visible as it is in, for example, the landscapes of Turner or Eric Ravilious. As with much contemporary art, if the artist or the curator’s explanatory text didn’t tell you what you’re looking at, you might not know it’s there.
But as Tom Wolfe observed in The Painted Word, his mordantly satirical 1975 takedown of the contemporary art scene: “Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting… Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”
Words: Claudia Barbieri Childs – Photos Courtesy Newlands House Gallery
Annie Morris and Idris Khan Newlands House Gallery in Petworth, Sussex, until May 7.