Zen and the Art of Health-Care Maintenance

"Eating Monkey Brains, The Baboon Nurse and Other Tales," Robert Morrison's audacious one-man show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth, is pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. If you like one piece in this exhibition, which is as provocative as its title, you'll probably buy into the whole show.

Again and again, in piece after piece -- and there are 89 by my count, a couple of them comprising more than a dozen separate but related units, many others grouped in multipiece clusters -- Morrison uses variations on the same few shapes, colors, and objects to achieve results that are, paradoxically, both widely varied and remarkably consistent at the same time. A keenly honed and focused artistic sensibility is at work here, and perhaps an obsessive-compulsive one as well. According to an essay in the excellent exhibition brochure by Kirk Robertson, who like Morrison is a Nevada-based artist and writer, Morrison typically whips himself into "a ritual of panic" during which he produces the pieces for an upcoming show in a compressed period of time, working virtually nonstop in a frenzy of deadline-driven creativity. The vast majority of the works included here, for instance, were made this year.

With only a couple of exceptions, the pieces in this show, which encompasses sculpture, installation, and charcoal-and-sepia drawing, are also all abstracts. Morrison occasionally presses such recognizable objects as ceramic bowls and tiny metal beads into service for the three-dimensional works, but his dominant visual motif, both in metal and on paper, is a simple finlike structure that, in his hands, proves amazingly versatile and malleable. At times it's as straightforward and unambiguous as the fins of sharks and other marine creatures. But in many pieces Morrison stretches the shape almost beyond recognition, morphing it into rough-edged obelisks, irregular polygons, and lopsided, vaguely phallic forms. But even these variants seem to be in uneasy flux, edging away from, then back toward, the primal "fins" that are clearly Morrison's basic building blocks.

For sculptures Morrison works almost exclusively in steel and bronze, accented here and there with items made of ceramic, plaster, or rubber and pieces of cotton muslin cloth. (One divergent work, called Sanitary Aprons, consists of 15 wall-mounted panels of cotton muslin that use some of the same shapes as the metal sculptures.) From a distance, many of the "fins" and the low-slung platforms on which they rest look uniformly rusty orange and dark metallic gray, respectively. Then, as you close in, the pieces reveal rich networks of swirling patterns and textures. I have no idea whether Morrison lets his metals "weather" naturally or if he helps the process along by treating them with chemicals or other substances; whatever his method, it yields mesmerizing surfaces. The imposing slabs of metal seem to have risen from some murky depths to sit poised between motion and stasis.

The drawings pick up on the same forms and compositional techniques, transferring them to paper in a drastically narrowed palette of charcoal blacks and grays offset by sepia tones that mimic the rusty oranges of Morrison's metals. And with two wall-mounted installations that face each other in a sort of corridor off the main gallery, Morrison toys with the distinctions between two and three dimensions. On one wall, at roughly eye level and spaced at equal intervals, 14 of the artist's trademark steel shapes jut from the wall. In a rare concession to representation, Morrison has entitled the piece Noses and Tongues, although so many of the shapes depart from that description that the label becomes largely irrelevant.

On the facing wall is a similar but more complex piece called The Nurse Smells Something Funny. Although the 15 shapes mirror their counterparts, they're rendered in "mixed media" that give them a ruddy, leathery look. And Morrison has gone a few steps further with this piece: He's drawn additional shapes at the bases of the sculptural forms and even cut other shapes into the wall, so that the elements of the piece seem to be both emerging from and melting into the wall.

In an impressively accommodating gesture, the museum has allowed Morrison to repaint these walls, as well as those of the narrow side gallery adjacent, with a dark, mustardy yellow that sets off the installations, drawings, and sculptures to great effect. Upstairs, in one of the balcony galleries that overlook the museum's cavernous main hall, Morrison has repainted the wall with a burnt orange that derives directly from the oranges in his drawings and sculptures.

The museum has, in effect, given itself over to this exhibition, a gracious gesture for which director and curator Jim Peele is to be commended. He rightly realizes that Morrison's work owes its considerable impact, in part, to a display space that allows the individual works to reverberate off one another without distraction. A single Morrison piece, or even a small set of related pieces, might exert an eerie charm in isolation. But seen together, in a museum that has a big multilevel main gallery and more intimate spaces flowing around and above it, the pieces feed off one another, emanating an aura that simultaneously energizes and tranquilizes. The airy main room, in particular, is a perfect place for the handful of largest pieces, including the towering Baboon Nurse, which has some of the grandeur of the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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