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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.

By the same token, I have a hard time imagining Morrison's work sharing an exhibition space with works by other artists. This art needs no context aside from its own; anything else would be an intrusion. Indeed, the one piece here that's not Morrison's -- a large kinetic sculpture that, for practical purposes, wasn't removed -- feels jarringly out of place in this artist's self-referential, self-sustaining world.

As Robertson's brochure essay explains so well, "the new work is based not on repetition, but, rather, on accretion -- Morrison is gradually making, and adding to, the parts of an unknown whole. This unknown post-minimalist whole is composed of repeating similar forms, each with its own individual, idiosyncratic variations. Taken collectively, they generate an irregular symmetry with an emphasis on pattern."

Robertson is right to emphasize accretion, irregular symmetry, and pattern in Morrison's work, but he may be too quick to downplay the importance of repetition. I detect, as he does, a distinct and profound Japanese influence, and for me that influence has everything to do with repetition. Many of the midsize sculptures in which a "fin" shares a platform with a ceramic bowl, for instance, suggest not only the austere Zen rock gardens Robertson cites but also the Japanese tea ceremony, with its rigorous attention to meticulously repetitive ritual, its concern with process as well as result.

There's also more than a whiff of Zen in Morrison's titles, which have less to do with the actual content of his images than with creating and sustaining a rhythm through repetition and subtle variation. Seven adjacent sculptures positioned along an upstairs balcony edge, for example, bear these designations: Nurse Fearing Wind, Nurse Counting to Eight, Nurse Looking Furious, Nurse in Java, Nurse Eating Alone, Nurse Feeling Too Old, and Nurse Makes Offering. The ten drawings on the wall opposite have similar titles, as do such large freestanding pieces downstairs as Nurse Thinks About Rabbit Milk and Old Artist Murders His Maid. Note the prevalence of active verbs to convey process.

Morrison isn't referring to a nurse in any usual sense of the word, of course, although I don't think it's too far-fetched to infer a pun (nursing an obsession or an artistic theme?), and the word coupled with those omnipresent "fins" summons up images of nurse sharks. Robertson mentions "the Japanese concept of the nurse being someone who takes care of the artist and his aesthetic concerns."

More to the point, Morrison's pieces and their titles function as Zen koans of a sort -- enigmatic riddles to inspire reflection and detached contemplation. Turned over and over again in the mind, recycled repeatedly through consciousness until stripped of any logical meaning, both words and images achieve the elusive transcendence the artist is seeking.

"Eating Monkey Brains, The Baboon Nurse and Other Tales" is on display through November 1 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Palm Beach Community College, 601 Lake Ave., Lake Worth, 561-582-0006.


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