Michael Murrell’s sculptures and assemblages fill the walls, hang from the ceiling and rise from the floors in Connections, his thoughtful and moving show at Chastain Arts Center’s gallery through March 6.
Ably curated by Karen Comer Lowe, the disparate works are connected through symbol, form, material and, most importantly, Murrell’s singular ability to find the unique form in that material, be it wood, metal or bone. It seems that he can make something from anything. But it is never just anything: it is the thing as it was always meant to be.
The sleeping figure of Deer Dreams, lustrous sculpture carved from the huge trunk of a fallen white ash, is the still point in the room and the potent nexus of Murrell’s intuitive ability to find what is in the wood and his craftsmanship. The “Do Not Touch” signs were ubiquitous, and for good reason: I had an overwhelming desire to run my hands along the grain of the wood as it followed the marble-like haunches of the figure — an ash tree’s dream of reincarnation.
The room feels potently silent; it’s as if you have interrupted a silent conversation among the works that you, too, must be still and silent to hear. They invite the viewer to consider ideas of connection — to the cosmos, to the past, to the plant and animal worlds, to our dreams and to each other — through archetypes and ancient ideas.
One of those ideas must certainly be the Buddhist notion of impermanence: all existence is transient and in flux; nothing is ever really destroyed, but neither is it permanent.
The idea of transience and its corollary, to take pleasure in what is here now, is eloquently conveyed in the focal Skull Tower, a slender, conical floor-to-ceiling sculpture made from the skulls of more than 24 species of animals that Murrell has collected during 50 years’ worth of hikes in the woods. Deer, raccoons, rabbits, turtles and birds are reincarnated here into a singular work of beauty.
Like Skull Tower and the three other sculptures made from found animal bones, much of Murrell’s work speaks powerfully to the idea of transformation, another connection implied here. Red Twist, made from a twisted and hollowed out arch of white cedar, was given a refined finish and trumpet-shaped ends. Red felt fills the cedar’s interior and spills from the ends like blood, suggesting renewal more than death.
The piece rhymes with Trumpet, the corner installation of graceful, long-stemmed “flowers” made from epoxy resin inverted and suspended from the ceiling so that they open voluptuously to the floor.
This is spare but allusion-filled work. It reflects not only Murrell’s knowledge of the art and myths of African, Oceanic, Eastern and Native American (especially Inuit) cultures but also his desire to capture the spirit in nature rather than the actual form.
Murrell made much of this work during residencies at the Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia. He harvested bamboo there to “weave” the dreamlike blue Kayak, which floats across the center of the gallery like an Egyptian lunar barque. He used the same bamboo for Canoe, inverted and suspended from the ceiling, as ancient and as timeless as the craft that dominates the ceiling of the Oceanic Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A fallen spruce that he happened upon in the Maine woods became Dream Boat, a narrow and graceful boat shape which he roughed out and carved on the spot and hauled out over his shoulder to his nearby studio, where he stained its interior an evocative blue and filled it with currents of found beads the colors of water and sky.
Murrell’s boats express the idea of passage — through time and space. The idea of journeys, particularly cyclical ones, is important to the artist, whose frequent use of circles and elliptical loops echoes his belief in the rhythmic continuity of life.
Zuruuruhe: Travel Urge, its title a biological term for migration or the urge to travel, is a Martin Puryear–like sculpture made from curved pieces of found spruce joined to form a circle. Two arctic terns are captured midflight on the loop, as if in continuous migration. Their yearly flight from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back is a 25,000-mile loop.
Some of the work would have benefited from more careful lighting, but in others the shadows cast onto the floor or wall provided an opportunity to see the structure of the piece in a different way. Look for the reticulation on the floor cast by Bone Towers and the patterned weave multiplied beneath the floating Kayak. This effect is most powerful in Plow, one of the more evocative pieces and one of the most successful, whose shadows add the dimension of memory and create an almost stand-alone artwork on the wall behind it.
All of the work was made within the last 8 to 10 years and most within the last four, but none of the pieces is dated. At first, I wanted progression, chronology, until I realized that it is the very timelessness of the sculptor’s work that speaks most truthfully.
How would you date the many lifetimes in Skull Tower? And seen through the prism of impermanence, why would you want to?
Connections distills form, culture and idea to the level of poetry. Murrell seamlessly connects his many influences with a lifetime of looking in powerful, often beautiful works that reference those influences but are always entirely, uniquely, themselves.
Murrell will give a gallery talk at 11 a.m. February 28.
Murrell at a residency at Chulitna Lodge on the banks of Lake Clark, Alaska.