Gazing at a Morgan Herrin sculpture is like stumbling upon a shipwrecked treasure from another planet. His wood-carved, larger-than-life sized monuments to antiquity are infused with a surreal sci-fi sensibility: craggy barnacles, starfish, and coral adorn the face of an old-world bust, armor-clad knights melt into stalactite formations, and a 5,300-year-old mummy raises his arms to the modern world.
Herrin describes these works, included in his new show Antiquary which opened at ODU’s Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries last month, as a collection of curiosities. “The title speaks to a non-academic interest in history and the scientific study of ancient objects without being too specific or too nerdy about it—kind of like a sports enthusiast who doesn’t play sports.”
Herrin, whose parents are both scientists, grew up with a passion for science. “I was the kid who was up to date on all the scientific discoveries,” he said. As such, it’s no surprise that his artistic output is rooted in research and embellished with a fantastical flourish. “A lot of the works are from a deep interest or appreciation for things that are ancient and mysterious and sort of bend the rules of science and fantasy,” he explained. “It’s not full on fantasy, but more of a magical reality.”
Herrin’s interest in ancient sculpture was fueled by a trip to Rome some years ago. He found that when he visited museums, the pieces that most intrigued him were the ancient artworks, shrouded in mystery. “I’ve always been interested in the work where there’s almost no information about it and it’s broken, or there’s a piece of something and you have to imagine the rest of it. Like there will be a hand that was from something, but the rest of it’s gone. Those blank spaces are more interesting than a complete work where a lot is known about it.” Herrin seizes on those blank spaces and embellishes them with his own imaginings, bringing an ancient concept into a new context, allowing him to become a part of the object’s mysterious history. “It’s really nice imagining the work surviving, not only the artist, but the culture that created it,” he said. “I almost feel like I’m inserting myself into this ongoing timeline because the object is continuing in a new way.”
That idea of the old world and the new world rubbing up against each other is a concept that particularly fascinates Herrin. As he explained to me, research factors heavily into his process. “I’ll get really interested in things and sort of start studying them.” One of his recent obsessions was ritual animal sacrifice, which he explored in a piece called Old Habits. “It’s a severed goat head that’s on an eight- or nine-foot spike,” he said. “I’m really interested in the difference between ancient religion and modern religion and how insane and violent things used to be.” He went on to recount how, in his research, he stumbled upon a news story reporting that sacrificed goat heads were turning up consistently in Central Park. “That’s someone’s weekly religious practice,” he said. “I guess certain things continue forever and those things are maybe worth paying attention to. Maybe that’s an elemental part of the human experience.”
Carving these monumental wooden sculptures is no small task. Herrin uses a reductive sculpting method, literally starting with a hunk of wood and whittling away from there, coaxing the form into existence. “At a certain point, you’re almost this machine that just makes,” he said, describing the process. Labor is an integral part of his craft, a foundational building block in the construction of the sculpture. “For me, it’s really important that it takes a long time and that there’s a lot of labor put into it.” In a mechanized age where commercialized and industrialized modes of production are at an artist’s fingertips, it’s unique that Herrin’s hand is so evident in each of his sculptures. This also allows him the freedom to explore different avenues if a sculpture becomes stale. “I do like to leave it open to change,” he explained. “If that wasn’t a possibility, the process would seem more dead, less like a living thing.”
Herrin is a self-taught wood-carver and, for over a decade, wood has been his primary medium. “I needed a fundamental change, so I completely shifted gears and concentrated on a different material. I didn’t really have any guidance. I kind of had to teach myself carving.” That labor of learning, of keeping oneself invested in a process, is vital to Herrin’s overall approach to art. “The most important part of learning something is an interest in it—to keep going even when it’s real tough,” he reflected. “Even when it kind of sucks and you hate it a little bit, your interest in it will keep you going.” That dedication, and the excitement he continues to find in his craft, is evident in that merging of reality and fantasy, so characteristic of his work: simultaneously detailed and fantastical. “I doubt I’ll ever stop seeing myself as a student of it,” he smiled.
Antiquary will be on view at Old Dominion University’s Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries through October 1. An opening reception will be held on September 1 from 7-9 PM. Morgan Herrin is represented by ADA Gallery in Richmond, see more of his artwork at morganherrin.com.
Photography courtesy of ADA Gallery