New York

Owen Morrel

Ted Greenwald Gallery

Imagine a monumental, futuristic steel crossbow mounted above a staircase that seems to have come from either a lighthouse or a ship. There’s no platform at the top of the staircase, so one is left to surmise its purpose. Are we helmsmen standing watch on a surrogate bridge? Or astronomers who no longer know how to use a telescope? The staircase and beams supporting the crossbow rise out of a large boulder, which emphasizes the isolation one feels while climbing up. It makes one more aware of being separated from terra firma.

Owen Morrel has been influenced by Robert Smithson in his metaphysical streak, but he has transformed Smithson’s provocative ideas into something personal. Pilot Bridge, 1984, is no mannerist rehash. Unlike Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, it is made of steel, and can be transported; in this instance it was installed on a traffic island in downtown Manhattan. Smithson preferred “found” materials and industrially devastated, abandoned sites. This difference in temperament is brought into sharper focus when one concentrates on the way the two artists deal with the theme of isolation. Many of Morrel’s earlier sculptures projected over the edge of a city roof, so that the viewer was placed in a physically lonely situation whose remoteness was nevertheless make-believe. Smithson, on the other hand, placed his earth works in largely inaccessible areas, outside the borders within which one expects to find art. Instead of isolating the viewer, he isolated his work.

Pilot Bridge connects the distant past with a possible future. It evokes a realm combining ancient sea voyages, war machinery, and astronomy with a post-apocalyptic tower on which one stands and looks for signs of life. Morrel uses steel, with its modern connotations, to make prehistoric and posthistoric moments collide. A series of narrative possibilities is sparked.

Not surprisingly, Morrel’s drawings, shown in the gallery space, also inhabit a fictional realm. The preparatory ones for Pilot Bridge depict the sculpture in a barren landscape. It’s as if Morrel encountered this artifact from a future time while traveling across a desert or an uninhabited plain. In this context, his finely detailed yet matter-of-fact drawings become palpable proofs of the object’s existence. Unlike similar drawings of architectural sculpture, they are not burdened with writing; Morrel is confident enough to allow his drawings to stand on their own. To my mind these are more than just studies, forming a distinct category within the artist’s overall approach.

Morrel’s work has evolved out of two vastly different, seemingly irreconcilable traditions. A literary side includes Marco Polo, Jorge Luis Borges, and contemporary speculative fiction writers such as Roger Zelazny. Another tradition includes such Modern sculptors in steel as David Smith and Mark di Suvero. Like the works of Smith and di Suvero, Morrel’s monumental steel sculptures are intimate and playful.

John Yau