Morgan MacLean: Turning urban trash into beautiful illusions

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As an architectural model maker for Frank O. Gehry, Morgan MacLean learned how to turn a wad of paper into a replica of a building. Now, as a sculptor, he is tweaking that creative process.

The artist, 34, lives and works in Highland Park, devoting months to chiseling, filing, sanding and waxing a single block of mahogany into an exact scale model of a crumpled paper bag. In his latest show, “Urban Remnants,” at Reform Gallery in Los Angeles, MacLean presents himself as an archaeological craftsman.

“I am gathering objects from the street, most of it mass produced, most of it trash, and rendering them as modern-day artifacts,” he said. “I want people to cherish things that they normally step over and ignore or crush themselves. When they are carved out of wood, people have to process what they are.”


Among the works on display are “Catherine” and “Devoe,” two life-size replicas of smashed, 3-foot-tall drum traffic barriers known as channelizers, carved over six years from 1,000-pound walnut logs.

“Aren’t they sick?” Reform Gallery owner Gerard O’Brien said in the most complimentary way. “They make you think about what we see as disposable. And where beauty can come from.”

For MacLean, beauty comes from long hours using only hand tools to create the complex dents and curves that turn a functional object into a piece of garbage. He names each piece for the street on which he found it, and he builds custom displays. His paper bag sculptures seem to float on steel pegs above cast concrete bases that can be detached, so the work can be displayed on tall plywood pedestals or on a tabletop.

MacLean acknowledged that a large percentage of what he does manually could be reproduced by computer-controlled machinery. “But I cannot cut corners,” he said. “I have to go through the process of getting the wood to the place where I feel satisfied it’s become an intriguing shape you’d be drawn to.”

The artist’s father was director of an antique boat museum, and as a teenager in Watertown, N.Y., MacLean worked as a boat builder. His grandmother, a painter, left her tools to him. He used them as models for his first woodcarvings.

Though he has also experimented with metal, MacLean remains smitten with wood, producing works that are at once pieces of design craftsmanship and conceptual art.


“These are not cynical objects,” said Brooks Hudson Thomas, a design retailer and curator who showed MacLean’s “Discarded” series at the 2010 High Desert Test Sites art event in Joshua Tree. “While they may telegraph their relationship to the surplus of debris we generate as a culture, they are totally transformed by the care and skill with which they are made.”

That attention to detail can be daunting, the artist said. “It’s not about people being awed by my ability,” MacLean said. “It’s about my obsessiveness and the incredible difficulty of turning something solid into this crushed form. It can be so infuriating that it becomes a real love-hate relationship. Luckily, wood is very forgiving.”


What: Wood sculpture by Highland Park artist Morgan MacLean

Where: The Landing, the new exhibition space in Reform Gallery, 6819 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Ends Jan. 31.

Information: (323) 938-1515,,

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