Sound of rust

Robert Morrison

Robert Morrison says he feels emotionally moved seeing a piece like “Tongues: The Half-Life of Morphine” installed in a gallery again.<p></p>

Robert Morrison says he feels emotionally moved seeing a piece like “Tongues: The Half-Life of Morphine” installed in a gallery again.

Photo By David Robert

Robert Morrison’s sculptures are like people. Each piece has a story that is not immediately obvious upon coming face to face with it. On the surface, there is symmetry and repetition—like the physical form of man and the daily rituals that lend to his identity. When the façade is penetrated, we find unrest, things become more sullied, and there are as many layers as there are neurons in the brain. A Morrison sculpture or drawing is oxymoronic; it’s minimal, but complex.

Robert Morrison: A Retrospective, at Nevada Museum of Art, includes three decades worth of Morrison’s work, from 1968 to 1998. Morrison has selected his strongest 16 pieces—the ones that will undoubtedly generate the most dialogue—to be displayed in the show.

The intriguing piece “O’Coeur …” (1989) features 12 bathtubs, looking perhaps more like troughs, filled with filthy water that rusts the inside of each tub. Every tub is housed in its own cell, separated from other tubs by a fine wall of screen and illuminated from above by a light bulb hanging by a length of grubby rope.

Unlike Morrison’s mumbling, buzzing, pinging sound pieces ("Tongues: The Half-Life of Morphine” and “Mumbles") that are the focus of the show, “O’Coeur …” doesn’t resound aurally. However, it does resound ethereally, evoking the sounds of a dripping faucet or a bustling bathhouse or the almost silent advance of decay.

“O’Coeur …” and “Tongues” (a piece consisting of 30 steel and fiberglass cots with steel pillows, arranged in a grid and designed to produce random clanging hospital-like noises) are two pieces that Morrison says are emotionally wrenching to see again.

“O’Coeur …” began to take shape at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley while Morrison sketched. As he watched the creek, Morrison began to think of the arterial quality of a watershed, which led to his thinking about the process of recycling and cleaning water. It’s dirty and disgusting at times, and yet there is a cleansing and purifying component to the process. These reflections led to thoughts on ablution and the religious connotations of water. Then, Morrison arrived at a vision of Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting The Death of Marat. Marat had been a sometimes violent and obdurate patriot who was murdered by a woman in his bathtub—a place he spent many hours treating a disfiguring skin disease.

“I don’t expect anyone to walk in and say, ‘Oh. I know exactly what you’re talking about,'” Morrison says of the piece.

“If you take the idea that a story—if it has a narrative at all—it’s layered, or it’s a collection of things and experiences,” he says.

Ironically, Morrison’s pieces bring to mind the human form and human interactions because of humanity’s absence. Bathtubs, hospital beds and hats (elements that appear in different Morrison pieces) are all things that don’t necessarily represent us, but rather help define us. They are places we go, things we do, spaces we occupy. But Morrison leaves us to make those connections ourselves.

“I think the best art leaves you puzzled," Morrison says. "I have had the experience of going to a film on Friday night that leaves me Saturday morning, when I’m mowing the lawn, still working on it. I think that’s good art … to have the work somehow resonate—echo around in somebody’s mind."