House party

Edw Martinez & Robert Morrison

Forty years of fun: Edw Martinez and Robert Morrison in the Sheppard Gallery.

Forty years of fun: Edw Martinez and Robert Morrison in the Sheppard Gallery.

Photo By brad bynum

Forty years ago, the then newest members of the University of Nevada, Reno art department faculty, Edw Martinez and Robert Morrison, collaborated on a two-person exhibition.

“We shared an office back in’68,” says Martinez. “We showed up to work in slacks and skinny ties.” The two were hired to usher in a new era in the school’s ceramics and sculpture programs.

“We were brought in to shake things up,” says Martinez.

Neither artist can remember exactly what they exhibited at that first show, but in the past four decades, the two men have played major roles in shaping the art department. Martinez, now emeritus, was the chair of the department, and Morrison labors on at the university—at this point he’s practically the living embodiment of the school’s sculpture program.

The current exhibit at UNR’s Sheppard Gallery is The House of Last Week’s Work: 40 Years Between Edw Martinez & Robert Morrison. The title is more accurate than the subtitle—this is an exhibition of new work, some of it dating to mere hours before the opening reception late last month, not a retrospective.

But the 40-year bond between the two artists comes to play in the nature of the work. The simple, but iconic and immediately recognizable shape of the house—a square or cube with a triangle on top—appears throughout the exhibit.

Morrison’s contributions include untitled, minimalist drawings of houses, often emitting smoke or fire. Hung along one wall, the drawings entice the viewer to project a narrative into the sequence.

“There’s no linear narrative,” says Morrison, with a conspiratorial grin, “but there are some good jokes—some good visual jokes—in there.”

Morrison also constructed large steel houses—like oversized Monopoly pieces—elevated to eye level on metal stilts. These pieces emit sound, recordings of Morrison’s voice, rigged in such a way as to vibrate the sculptures, creating a mix of live, kinesthetic sound and pre-recorded recitation.

“I’m interested in sound, and the way it affects how we perceive spaces,” he says.

Morrison’s interest in the house shape began with his interest in butterflies. He had been finding himself drawn to artwork featuring butterflies, and he felt a certain embarrassment about this. “I might as well have been working with unicorns or rainbows,” he says.

He found a kindred spirit when he read that Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov was an avid butterfly enthusiast. Lepidopterists must closely examine the genitals of their specimens to distinguish different species. The mental image of the author of Lolita contemplating butterfly genitalia was striking to Morrison. It resonated with the sense of isolation that accompanies intensive study—something musicians call “woodshedding”—a trait shared by artists and destructive, antisocial individuals, like the Unabomber. The house shape represents those spaces in which obsessive, solitary work is done.

“It’s the dark side of lepidoptery,” says Morrison with a laugh.

In Martinez’s hands, the house shape takes on other meanings entirely. The house appears in a piece he calls “The Temple”: a wooden alter—a square with a triangle on top—with what appears to be a mummified baby doll in the center and a mound of suitcases stacked in front of it like an offering.

Another Martinez piece in the exhibition is “Cairn,” a mound of ceramic baby doll heads arranged in the house shape.

Whereas Morrison builds with Spartan elegance, Martinez thrives in clutter.

“I like building piles,” he says. “I like to take stuff, throw it on the floor, and scatter it around. My working philosophy is, take an object. Do something. Do something again.”