Joel Morrison’s sculptures, usually made from polished metal or encased in high-gloss fiberglass, ride a fine line between punk showmanship and high-minded conceptualism. Talking with Joel is always a rapid-fire roller coaster of disparate ideas that somehow manage to overlap, much like his work. He and I caught up while looking at images of his most recent show for Gagosian Gallery’s Madison Avenue space.
Matt Fisher: Has your stuff always incorporated scrounged or found materials?
Joel Morrison: I think so, but rather than just clumps of small objects that I could form into anything, now I’m collecting forms. I’m collecting things that are almost readymade abstract works. Even that big shopping cart [we’re looking at Weather Balloon Trapped in a Shopping Cart], the trick of that is you could talk about economics, and you could talk about discovering that the atmosphere is disappearing – whatever, there’s a thousand stories – but the whole trick of the piece is you have this simple form over this complex conversation. Like, a big fat guy stuck in his jeans that are too tight for him, and that makes up for the, "Oh, here’s this environmental piece. Oh, it must be for the homeless. Oh, he’s making a comment on…”
MF: I remember when we were both in grad school, and we would joke that you were the punk and I was the nerd. I’ve been thinking a lot about the punk trajectory in your your work, and I still think there’s something ominous in each of your pieces.
JM: I think you can’t be punk rock forever. At some point it doesn’t make sense, and and so punks can turn into hippies in their old age. You run out of stuff to be too general and mad about. Yeah, I think they’re ominous because I’m infusing a lot of me into them, and when I’m making art I have this very ominous feeling. I’m afraid that maybe what I’m doing is complete bullshit and doesn’t matter, and at the same time I’m hoping that I will be able to continue to do this for the rest of my life because I really love it.
I start off with a general theme to challenge myself because every time I want to find a new starting point. So I was like, “Ok, lets have this theme: America is just going to shit." Well, that’s not a theme, man, it’s on CNN. And these works are really about witnessing, if not the fall, at least the failure of an empire, and when that starts to deflate on itself, what does that moment feel like?
MF: When I think of ominous, I think of -
MF: Doom. Right. There’s a threat of violence in each of these things. I mean, this one’s [looking at Vic] a little more literal because it’s got big alligator teeth.
JM: I think there’s a fear factor to all of these works.
MF: Except for this one [looking at Untitled].
JM: It’s a John McCracken wrapped up in bubble wrap, like a coffin for John McCracken. I dunno, that’s pretty ominous!
MF: But it is intensely… lovely. It’s not ominous to me.
JM: But it is. Lemme tell you about it. I was at an art fair in Germany, and it was 2007-2008, when suddenly there were 800 fucking art fairs in the world, and like 2,000 biennials, and part of being a young artist growing up in that system is that you are forced to go to these fucking art fairs. Man, it’s like watching your parents have sex. But there’s no door to close and no way to get out, and you want to leave.
And the only thing worse are the back rooms of the art fairs where they store all the work. I remember trying to find the restroom and seeing a John McCracken right up against the wall in bubble wrap, just next to a cart, and I was like “Whhhat?!” There’s a piece of art.
MF: Like you had a Louise Lawler moment.
JM: Right, Louise Lawler, but it also happens to be a really goofy, funny-seeming piece. It’s a complex conversation without a happy, understandable ending. That’s fucking interesting to me. I’m good at bringing up questions, but I can rarely answer anything. I think that’s our job. Because otherwise you’re just like some old man screaming at the bus.
MF: This bust, the neck brace, the nose ring [referring to Pop Defekte] – these are all items that you scrounged and assembled, and this bust existed as it was?
JM: Right. Five bucks. And the other thing that was interesting was that I started taking things just from the neighborhood. You see these Mexican kids and these El Salvadoran kids, and the African-American community, mostly Caribbean. I was only going within one or two blocks of the studio. You really see America evolving.
These kids are second generation American – now they’re all wearing Misfits t-shirts, skinny jeans, Creepers. They’re so removed from 70s London, but what isn’t removed is their place in the world. They now completely understand when they listen to Sex Pistols or the Misfits or Black Flag, they’re like, “Oh, I totally relate to that shit.” And especially in L.A. Now there are Jamaican steampunks – like, what?
JM: It’s an awesome hybrid of opposites, and with these pieces I was always thinking about that. How they really became, especially the busts, these hybrids.
MF: And you can imagine that these are going to be the easiest ones for an art historian to talk about because they’re the most referential to other art. You go, “Oh, Jeff Koons.”
JM: Or, the dude with the bow tie will be like, “Oh, that’s Pollyanna the 18th, my dear boy, and she existed on the outskirts of the—” [laughs] and I have that same reaction now to “Oh, that’s a Jeff Koons.” I’m like, you might as well be that old man talking about the statue because I just really don’t care.
MF: That’s the other interesting question, because there aren’t that many people making “sculpture” sculpture anymore. You make “sculpture-sized-sculpture-on-a-pedestal” sculpture. Lots of what you see now is installation, or “design as sculpture,” or oversized objects.
JM: I think when we started out in graduate school, you had to be an installation artist. Jason Rhoades, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy were all doing these scatter pieces. Sculptors now are more installation artists. It’s this challenge of taking installation art, or at least a bunch of scattered ideas, and putting those ideas in one form.
MF: Each is a hybrid of some other things. You don’t do pure forms at all.
JM: No, no, they’re hybrids. [Looking at Pop Defekte again.] OK, nose-pierced statue, corn cobs from Wisconsin, punk rock spikes – those are all pretty loaded, they could represent many different scenarios. Instead of a whole gallery, I’m trying to put it all in one object. And I think these pieces have that relation to installation art.