New York

Owen Morrel

American Thread Building

Perched on top of the American Thread Building in the heart of Tribeca is a 35-foot-tall structure of steel ladders, bars and industrial piping. It looks the same as other rooftop structures on neighboring buildings, but Owen Morrel’s Asylum is actually a questionable refuge from the din below. I say questionable because it is actually a rather threatening, slightly intimidating cage. Open prison-bar walls on three sides offer an exhilarating/terrifying lookout over the roofs of Tribeca and Soho; the floor tilts crazily, right angles are ignored, and notions of solidity are banished. The fourth wall, or entrance wall, offers an impassive front with a sliding prison-cell door in front; once inside, it offers a solid expanse of mirror, reflecting the sky, rooftops, bar-walls and you—the entrapped viewer. If Morrel has a special fondness for paradox he couldn’t have offered a more literate example than Asylum, implying the ironies of safety insanity, freedom/imprisonment, as well as punning on self-reflection, and mental and physical balance.

Previous pieces have also been installed outside of galleries, outside of buildings. Both Desk Axis and Catapult 70 involved viewer interaction with the piece and the environment. Both were precariously built structures; both offered special vantage points overlooking the city. Yet both pieces were focused outward, using optical devices that literally telescoped distant space into close proximity, forcing the viewer into a pinpoint experience of his own spatial location, giving a distorted reference point.

Asylum makes a subtle shift from the object as a locator in space to the object occupying a specific location—a change in emphasis from outward to inward, reflecting Morrel’s fascination with boundaries as “constructs of the mind.” The early pieces focused on a narrowing down of outside information, assimilating diverse inputs into a distilled essence of placement. The open walls and mirror images of Asylum, however, extend the space through repetition and counteract the specificity of the site. The dizzying effect makes the location more precious to the viewer: a home base to cling to in a disoriented environment.

Morrel’s work owes a great deal to conceptual thinking, intellectual processes. The pieces exist as built forms, but their physicality is secondary—a means to an end of meditation, and of awareness. Yet Asylum discards the props used in the former pieces—desks, chairs, optical equipment. The physical structure pares down to basic necessities, leading to an essentially literary examination, but one reached through physical disorientation. The lack of props is actually a more direct method of reaching experienced conclusions. I can’t help but feel that a further reduction of objects would produce an even more fully integrated reaction between concept and experience. Morrel may disagree—“A prop jockies the body/mind into position for flight”—but props have a way of intruding their own individual connotations upon the intentions of the artist, no matter how careful he is to be neutral. Morrel seems keenly aware of this, able to juggle a connotation into a symbolic statement. He seems to be approaching a more minimal realization of his thoughts, though, eliminating the need to translate through an object, relying more on the manipulation of the built form and its effect on the viewer/participant.

Deborah Perlberg