• July 2011

Thinking Big with Monumental Sculptor Owen Morrel

By Michael Gibbs
Publisher, Design Director
Be Inkandescent Magazine
Michael Gibbs Illustration & Design

There could be no better artist to profile for our July “Think Big” issue than sculptor Owen Morrel. Since the 1970s, his large-scale work has dominated New York skylines, street corners, and public spaces throughout the Western world.

Lauded in The New York Times, The Village Voice, New York Magazine, and Newsweek, Morrel’s outstanding and outlandish installations have caught the eye of many in the art world.

In fact, in an essay on the sculptor’s work, poet and art critic John Ashbery called Morrel’s installations, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ashbery “sassy, subversive, even menacing.”

Case in point was his 1976 installation “Desk Axis,” where Morrel cantilevered a wooden office desk and chair on a steel hinge and hung it six stories above Union Street in Brooklyn. Telescopic optics, which focused on the Statue of Liberty, were embedded into the desk and viewers were dared to venture out and sit in it.

Of Morrel’s 1978 installation, “Asylum,” Ashbery called it “a vertigo-inducing cage” since it was mounted on the roof of an office building. Equally daring was the 1980 “Omega,” in which the art critic or viewer was set on “an even more ticklish platform slung out over the gorge of the Niagara River at Artpark.” Here, though, Ashbery suggests that Morrel shifted his mission from provocation to invitation, “even though the occasion to be experienced seemed not without an element of risk for the viewer.”

In the last three decades, the native New Yorker, who was born on Long Island in 1950 and graduated from Skidmore College in 1972, has continued to expand the concept of what is possible when it comes to thinking bigger.

His giant sculptures have found homes at more than two dozen galleries around the world, including the Galerie Ugo Ferranti in Rome, Galerie Yvon Lambert in Paris, and Galerie Alfred Schmela in Dusseldorf. Stateside, you can see his work at the Philippe Staib Gallery in New York, and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, and many more. His work also appears in more than 40 private collections—including Prudential Bache Insurance in New York, Volvo in Stockholm, as well as the home of John Ashbery.

The Vision to Think Big

When it comes to creating and installing such massive, ingenious works of art, Morrel says the key is actually to think simply.

“The operative words are simplicity and light,” he explains. “Simplicity, light, the inclusion of the viewer in the creative act, and adherence to the essence of the term “site-specific” have been the operative concepts guiding my work over the past 30 years.”

I recently talked with Morrel about his background, philosophy, and what’s next for this prolific artist. Scroll down for more.

Michael Gibbs: I understand that as a kid you liked climbing to the top of things and looking at the world from a new perspective. But what made you want to become a sculptor?

Owen Morrel: Sculpture chose me, really. I left college for a year and lived on an island in Greece where I studied classical Greek ceramics. I loved working with my hands and the sexiness of the material. I kept making larger and larger pieces as I liked the all-encompassing physicality of the larger works. They all exploded in the kiln so I switched to wood and metal, which were more structural and less object-oriented.

When I came back to the States, I was in my early 20s. I spent my summers on my father’s fishing boat in Montauk Long Island. I photographed the rigging of the long-line fishing boats. The outriggers and the crow’s nests on the masts and the lines that the cables made against the backdrop of the sky were the first ‘sculptures’ I ever saw.

I thought how cool it would be if sculpture could mimic some of the forms and lines I saw in these ships. I wanted to make sculpture where people could climb in the rigging. I didn’t realize at the time that sculpture could be anything a sculptor wished it to be.

So when I moved to New York City in 1974, I met a young sculptor named Gordon Matta-Clark. He was 10 years my senior, and very warm and friendly. He was a disgruntled architect who was cutting holes in buildings to create amazing experiential pieces.

Many of them were done illegally and accepted later as the art community praised his efforts. Gordon died shortly thereafter, but I learned about having a creative license from him—as well as a Bulgarian sculptor, who was building a long fence of fabric through farmland out West. He also built a curtain across a valley between two mountains. I was very excited by this kind of artistic freedom and the scale was overwhelming.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were also very important to my early enthusiasm for sculpture. I learned about the potential of scale from them.

Michael Gibbs: Did you create anything unique when you were a child that made your parents know that you were destined for big things? Also, tell us about your earliest installation.

Owen Morrel: My father thought I was nuts when I dropped out of the pre-med program and transferred to a school with an art department so I could learn to do ceramics. He figured I’d be an accomplished beach bum someday.

Fortunately, my mother was more supportive from the start. In fact, when I was a teenager, she let me put mirrors on the ceiling in my bedroom and another mirror on the floor. I also painted day-glow paint on the walls and hooked up some black lights so the entire room was psychedelic.

I loved to be in that room floating through the infinite space between the mirrors. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was my first environmental piece.

Michael Gibbs: What was your first official sculpture?

It was an environmental piece in the living room of a studio apartment I rented in Manhattan. I was 22. I built a mirrored fish tank with Piranhas in it on top of stainless steel pillars, which sat on a mountain of white sand. It was very Jimi Hendrix, and as Jimi said, “castles made of sand fall in the sea eventually.”

In fact, the fish tank exploded in the middle of the night and water ran all over the floor into the neighbor’s apartment. I was asked to leave immediately.

Several years later I hired a street gang in Brooklyn to help me haul an old wooden office desk up to the roof of the loft building I was living in.

We welded a steel armature and hoisted the desk above the roof so it looked like a ship floating in space. There was a telescope embedded into the desk and when one climbed into the chair of the desk high above the roof and seven stories above the street below, the viewer could see the Statue of Liberty five miles away in the harbor.

I was arrested for not having a permit and all the New York newspapers and television stations carried the story. My father and mother turned on the 6 o’clock news, and there I was with my floating desk.

One month later I had shows in every major city in Europe and 10 commissions all over the world. At this point my parents thought I was on to something. They weren’t sure just what that was.

Michael Gibbs: Being an illustrator for print publications, I can’t imagine creating works of art much larger than a magazine page or a poster. Size would seem to be a critical element of your work—even your interior pieces are somewhat large. Do you ever work on smaller pieces? Do you find the impact of the piece to be affected by the size?

Owen Morrel: I always find it important to distinguish between scale and size. Many sculptures are large dimensionally yet don’t seem to have scale. In fact, scale is connected to the power and resolution of a vision.

A sculptor can try to give scale or magnitude to a work by making it big in size but it falls flat if the piece does not have an expansive vision. It is very tricky to make something idiosyncratic and big. I have experimented with this concept. I also enjoy working on smaller pieces. I like to make smaller works that cry out to be larger by the power they have without size as an asset.

If a piece has scale, it will appear huge even if it is small in size if photographed in isolation without known objects of reference in proximity to determine the actual size. This is a test I use to determine if a piece is worthy of being produced on a large format or size.

Size can also affect the impact of the work and take it from being an object to being an environment. I prefer to make environments that can be entered into rather than objects that exist at the expense of everything around them. I like my environments to be inclusive—not only of the site, but also of the viewers participating in the experience.

Michael Gibbs: How does the process work? Are your pieces generally commissioned? Do you start small (say with a model), then go big? Do your installations begin with a consideration of the space they inhabit?

Owen Morrel: There have been as many different circumstances and processes surrounding the work as pieces that have been realized. Sometimes I do a piece “on spec,” just because I am driven to build it.

I have been commissioned on many occasions and I have done pieces that are site-specific. Regardless of the situation I always start with a small scale and many drawings.

Now with 3-D modeling, I can show the maquette [small scale model] as it might appear full-scale as if it were installed within the space for which it is intended. This facility has made it easier to sell collectors on the idea of building a piece from scratch for a particular situation.

Michael Gibbs: What is your favorite medium to work with?

Owen Morrel: I like stainless steel. In terms of the physical and plastic qualities of a material, clay is hard to beat. Unfortunately, clay has many limitations that render it ineffective to manifest my ideas. It is virtually impossible to get beyond the object quality of clay products.

Michael Gibbs: You have had such incredible success in a field that is very difficult to break into. What advice would you give to other aspiring sculptors?

Owen Morrel: If you don’t have to do it, don’t. If you have no choice and love the process of struggling with materials and ideas, then go for it.

Every successful artist is a businessman or self-promoter. You can’t lock yourself away in the studio and make beautiful things and hope to get your ideas out to the world unless you get yourself out into that same world. Art is a performance. You do it for yourself, but everyone projects better to an audience.

In my experience, I have found that artists are very mystified by their own suffering. Since I’ve lived and traveled to several Third World countries, I realize what suffering is. I have never suffered.

Michael Gibbs: What are you working on now? And what are your plans for the future?

Owen Morrel: I’m working on several small maquettes to refine some new ideas. I’m also working on executing a 20-foot stainless steel piece for an area in Oklahoma. It resembles a giant kaleidoscope. I am developing another piece, which is powered by solar energy, so I am incorporating solar reflectors into the design.

I like this notion as I might discover a way to incorporate my reflective mirrors with a “green” and functional notion of sculpture. My work might be able to someday take my house off the electric grid. I am designing a windmill for my house, which could also function as a studio.

Michael Gibbs: I can’t wait to see that! Thanks so much for your time, Owen.

For more information, visit www.owenmorrel.com.

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