Michael Murrell’s Earthly Connections at Chastain Gallery

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Installation view of Michael Murrell’s “Connections”
at Chastain Arts Center, with Canoe at center.

Michael Murrell’s nearly 10-foot-tall assemblage, Skull Tower, is front and center in his solo exhibition “Connections” at the Chastain Arts Center through March 6. A sculpture of hundreds of animal skulls that coalesce into a conical shape, Skull Tower elicits a frisson of shock but it also solidly anchors the exhibition’s diverse collection of Murrell’s work.

Murrell 2, Skull Tower
Michael Murrell, Skull Tower, in foreground.

Curated by Karen Comer Lowe, “Connections” seeks to explore the mysteries of our bond with the natural world. Murrell’s most powerful sculptures address the conflict that often resides within that relationship, as in Skull Tower, where chaos—and perhaps even death itself—is brought under control and becomes approachable.

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Red Twist also raises questions about connection in a world of opposing forces. The sculpture is a hollow 10-foot tree trunk that is mounted on a wall, twirled and bent as if by a giant hand. A bolt of blood-red felt fills the inside of the trunk and flows out of each end of its hollow core. The sculpture shows a mighty natural object transformed into something soft and pliable, and seems to ask, at what cost?

Lotus is a more harmonious study in contrasts: an 8-foot-tall arrangement of seven large epoxy resin flowers that tumble down the wall onto the floor. In spite of their imposing size, the undulating shapes and transparent surfaces of the flowers make them appear as ephemeral as butterflies. Many of Murrell’s sculptures in “Connections” challenge our sense of reality, inviting us to contemplate the unexpected in a world we think we know.

Many of the 21 sculptures in the exhibition evoke spirals, circles, and ellipses, suggesting a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The elliptical shapes of Murrell’s boat sculptures dominate the gallery space, especially the 17-foot-long Kayak, a construction of loosely webbed bamboo that seems to float in the center of the room. Three other pieces, Clarion, Dream Boat, and Resin Boat are mounted on a wall, their prows pointing upwards, their shapes suggesting seed pods as much as canoes.

Michael Murrell, Plow, 2008; heart pine, cast iron, steel, Georgia clay, 96 by 14 by 26 inches.
Michael Murrell, Plow, 2008; heart pine, cast iron, steel, Georgia clay, 96 by 14 by 26 inches.

On his website, Murrell describes his sculptures as “poetic objects rather than reproductions of form” in nature. Several pieces on view, such as Deer Dreams, Bird Head Loop and Zuruuruhe, Travel Urge, however beautiful, are very near to being “reproductions of form” and distract from the more magical qualities of the other works. Plow is one such magical piece, a reminder that while we might look upon the world with awe and deference, it’s in our nature to strive to conquer it. Plow is Quaker-like in its simplicity, its utilitarian form placing it firmly in the temporal realm, except for a pair of disembodied hands attached to the equipment. The hands recall a Hindu or Buddhist mudra, in a pose of supplication, palms open, reverently holding clumps of dirt, seeking a connection to the spiritual.

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Murrell, who resides in Woodstock, Georgia, and has been exhibiting in the Southeast and internationally since 1988, masterfully extracts layers of meaning from an array of found objects and materials—wood, epoxy resin, cloth, metal, hair, bones. “Connections” peels back those layers, inviting us to explore the transformative aspect of our relationship with nature in the realms of the spiritual vs. the temporal, the mystical vs. the mundane.

“Connections” is on view at the Chastain Arts Center through March 6. Michael Murrell will give an artist’s talk on Saturday, February 28, at 11:00am.

Caroline Stover is a resident of Atlanta who works in publishing and artist representation

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