Robert Morrison

Sierra Nevada Museum of Art

River Thrum, 1985, by Robert Morrison, is a sound sculpture: a sequence, or phrase, of standing steel plates aligned on a tracklike armature of channel iron and wood. It sits on the south bank of the Truckee River, behind the Sierra Nevada Museum of Art, and looks, at various turns, like a futuristic sailing device, a stand of winter trees in a place Walter Van Tilburg Clark once called the “city of trembling leaves,” and a mechanical, even instrumental, equivalent of the river itself.

The sound River Thrum makes is implied in its title—a twitching, crusty, distant metallic sound that resonates from an apparatus designed to catch and register the ambient wind and river currents. Like sails, or better yet, shields, the steel plates face the wind, seeming to march against it. The plates are perforated with what appears to be a system of cryptographic holes, or negative markings, through which the wind passes in broken, irregular currents. In turn, this slight and invisible fragmentation of the downstream breeze activates the numerous wire antennae that scratch against the plates in such a way that the whole machine seems to be waiting and sharpening itself. Morrison has also secured fishing lines in the river bed and attached them to the sculpture’s armature, so that the flow of the water will tug on the work and, as if a bell, ring it.

Public site sculpture, or that hinged upon the conditions of its immediate environment, is often in a state of waiting; it waits, in most cases, to be activated by either the environment or the people who pass through it. As an eccentric receiver and transformer of phenomena, Morrison’s sculpture (including most of his recent work) finds its primary inspiration in the sound and site works of Doug Hollis. Each reconceives public sculpture as an instrument-in-waiting, a kind of neutral measure of a place. But Morrison complicates his sculptures by adding (ironically, through the process of cutting out) an active yet cryptic layer of visual imagery that seems to draw the “positive” object of sculpture into the domain of illusion, creating a “negative” visual field that carries and projects paraliterary signs and symbols for and of the site itself. In a sense, the sculpture pulls away from the site in order to more abstractly reconceive it. Thus, the artist forces what seem like contradictory readings of his sculpturesas being at once site receptive and sight reactive; these two systems of language incite a conversation among the elements of the sculpture itself and between it and its setting. This ambiguous perceptual and physical overlay is not unlike the cognitive method by which one reads the markings on prehistoric cave walls.

Perhaps Morrison’s interplay of languages, which is not really proposed in intermedia terms, stems from a rather conservative notion of sculpture as the transformation of some basic material reality (such as metal) into a form or image beyond itself. What is engaging about Morrison’s sculpture, however, is the way it opens up to the equally basic properties of this or that place—to its water and wind patterns, to its arid climate, and to its visual rhythms. The sculpture is somehow as stubborn as the river, but they manage to converse in a series of languages translated by the artist. In fact, River Thrum is itself a material translation of the ephemeral phenomena that define its site; these properties shape the sculpture, which shapes them in turn.

Jeff Kelley