A 'large scale retrospective' of work by Derry artist Locky Morris leaves John Gray wanting more
I arrive in the Golden Thread Gallery to be confronted by what is clearly ‘Then’ rather than ‘This’ in ‘An Bhearna Bhaoil’ or the ‘Gap of Danger’ (1988). A row of battered bin lids, and those bin lids that were literally battered to warn of police or army raids, are roughly decorated here in tar with figures echoing popular resistance. With the passage of time, and the help of rust, these pieces have taken on the qualities of decorative armorial shields in some ancient castle.
‘Town, Country, and People’ (1985-1986) immediately catches the eye. Cones explore the three themes in misty beauty beneath what appears to be blue sky, but which may well be search light beams coming from the helicopters perched at the apex of each of them: they are toys but that is the scale on which helicopters are perceived from below . Equally effective is ‘Dawn Raid’ (1988) where serried ranks of police landrovers surrounding a single house create a circular pattern, and all are at the same time suffused with a dull uniformity.
‘Twist’ (1989) is less obvious. An emigrant’s battered leather suitcase has been cut open, or rather rectangular squares have been cut out of it, and now the suitcase is propped on these squares which are shaped like playing cards. A tattered label with six names on it gives the clue: they are the Birmingham Six, and they were convicted on the basis of chemical residues on their hands which came from playing cards rather than making bombs.
All these are in the best tradition of public art. They still speak of the compelling times in which they were created, and are visually commanding. They have staying power, and justify Locky Morris’s inclusion in the now fashionable canon of ‘troubles’ art which was once so marginalised.
How then does Morris respond to the changed times of the Peace Process, when events in the public arena are less obvious, or even, as Morris puts it, ‘grey’?
After an interlude when he focused on his band Rare, Morris has returned to public art with considerable acclaim, though now it is official public art. The massive ‘Atlantic Drift’ constructed out of old timber piles and to be seen outside Derry City Council’s offices, and ‘Polestar’ on the outskirts of Letterkenny are notable examples.
Works on this scale can hardly be accommodated within a gallery space, but in choosing his ‘This’ here, which we may presume to reflect Morris’s more recent pre-occupations, he appears to be moving into quite different terrain. It is that of the personal, the familial, the micro-experience, and even the mundane.
The most intriguing of these works, ‘Itch’ (1999) is also the smallest, featuring the detritus from a lottery scratch card. With the help of a magnifying glass these signifiers of another wasted gamble turn into a multi-coloured landscape. Dreams live on!
In ‘From Day One’ (2008) a stretch of cheap carpet with a piece of crumpled card on it is enclosed in an exhibition style display case lit by fluorescent light. The crumpled card is a shirt stiffener discarded by his child preparing for a first day at school. And yet does this attempt at an almost museum style act of preservation really add illumination to a familiar rite of passage?
Sound and multi-media approaches are now more significant. ‘Bathroom Suite’ (2010) is a re-mix of the sounds of morning ablutions, but the transformation achieved with ‘Itch’ is not forthcoming here. The distorted and rhythmic piano accompaniment in ‘Of Note’ (2001) at least lends an air of apprehension to video of a nondescript Derry urban landscape in which little moves.
In the search for new reflections on the external world, I am initially drawn to a photograph, ‘White Dog and Seat’ (2010). Both are on their backs: what urban cataclysm is this? It is simply a hot day. The bleak view in ‘Day of the Rat’ (2010) again promises more than it delivers: it may indeed echo memories of prison camps, but the trigger was simply that a rat catcher was at work downstairs as Morris took the picture.
Elsewhere I see the exhibition described as ‘a large scale retrospective’. Hardly so as there are only eleven exhibits leaving plenty of empty space in the gallery. Morris’s current pursuit of the universal through the personal and the everyday also has plenty of space to fill before it can justifiably take off. He views Derry’s designation as UK City Culture with some foreboding. Inevitably he will be called upon as a ‘Derry’ artist as he increasingly looks to wider horizons, and yet it is his earlier and Derry-rooted work which makes a visit to This Then well worthwhile.
A fully illustrated catalogue is available for £10 and is helpful with the later works, in particular where the back stories go some way to illuminate the otherwise obscure.
This Then runs at the Golden Thread Gallery until September 18.