New York

Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray’s new paintings seem to polarize people into opposing camps, and they have a way of polarizing the viewer within himself. Their intensity rubs off on you, and you can’t help but feel very strongly about them. It may not even be a matter of liking them or not; they have a force worth reckoning with, and they demand to be taken seriously. Murray seems to have developed her art quite independently, outside of any established style; the work gets increasingly idiosyncratic and eccentric in every way, probably to sustain an extremely dynamic level of emotional expressiveness.

Part of this dynamism comes from Murray’s eccentric use of the normally rectangular canvas; standing it on a pointed corner, she transforms it into an elongated diamond. We read it as a trajectory of shape, as a balancing act of precarious stability. Other forms are even harder to get used to: canvas shapes and interior forms explode, as if their centers had burst out from stillness into stars. Some of the smaller paintings seem to ask for a response akin to that of the maligned naive searching clouds for associative images: Murray invents shapes which look like toy airplanes, blobby sci-fi monsters and cartoony illusionisms made with simple doublings like finger puppets and their projected shadows. (It is difficult to say exactly when we’re going too far; but after all, the paintings have titles like Children’s Meeting, Two But One, and Tug.)

Murray employs drastic internal shifts in size and scale, effecting a ticklish play of disoriented spatial relations. Very large areas are set off by a small dot, hairpin curves, meandering, sinuous lines, or distorted heart shapes. Murray’s paintings contain a reservoir of shapes, which vary in detail but not in essence; she may repeat them in different paintings of very different sizes, with a change of color, producing new feelings or perhaps contradictory thoughts for the shape. The shapes in her new paintings are as ungainly and obvious as they appear at first glance; they deliberately sustain an initial, affectionate gawkiness.

The key for me in understanding the paintings is Murray’s steeping each in a variety of viewing speeds indicated by precision of shape: slow, to savor the large interiors of big shapes for all their surface and pictorial detail; medium, to take in a whole large canvas and its divisions; fast, to follow a quick, jagged line down a long expansive field. Even when the painting is very small (like Tug) you may understand the shapes quickly, but the color slows you down because you can’t get “over” from one to the next with any facility. The color stymies pictorial ease, while the shapes rely on a dramatic, immediate, aggressive visuality for impact.

Conversely, a painting might work when you patiently pursue a repeatedly looped line from corner to corner through its journey over the surface, touching here and there unrelated shapes, colliding with areas of hot, sour green or fuchsia, now touching the edge of the canvas and then turning away, curving over to another edge. It’s hard to understand why the shapes and the colors look so unified when they always seem to be doing such different work. In Traveler’s Dream you may first be shaken by the incidence of bright red next to candy pink next to weird, bright green—biting colors which repel one another, arguing and resisting company rather than composing themselves into pleasing arrangements. But this same tipped-rectangle, this heavy, clunky painting has a gently flowing line all the way around its perimeter, touching every side at one precise point. You may read the painting starting from the straight lines of the outer shape or from the interior inscribing line which makes sure you don’t miss anything on your guided wanderings over the surface.

And once again, a reversal: Murray may do everything she can to break a completed experience of the whole. Parting and Together (possibly a title referring to childbirth?) has this sharp, brittle lightning bolt slashing the surface right down the middle, creating an uncrossable chasm of pictorial depth which nonetheless keeps the painting from splitting in two. Color here is odd, bizarrely right: salmon pink, milky lavender, jet black and grayish green. The more dramatic paintings like this one are offset by smaller, directly humorous works with rounded, bubbly shapes that recall artists’ palettes anthropomorphized. Other paintings most assuredly look fifties inspired: atomic age designings, boomerang shapes, Danish modern forms, with funny, unnatural, somewhat plastic, Formica or coloring-book color.

But for every artificial or deliberately naive form, Murray counters with a nontechnical hand painting preserving the human and the unpredictable. Large areas of color are shiny in one place, matte in another; the brushstroke varies, switches direction, is saturated into canvas or lies impasto-thick on top of it. So many times we see artists holding down many lively painting possibilities in order to “concentrate” on a reduced set of limitations extrinsic to painting activity itself, much as if they were scientists controlling experimental conditions. Whole shows present art all the same size, all the same color, all the same shape. Murray undermines, subverts, the integrity of this kind of thinking. She gives us many different colors and shapes, many curves and angles, many sizes and forms. The movement of her art as a whole results from an engagement with increasing variety. A considered inconsistency produces the integral logic and mood of singular personality. Other painters may set up problems, safely work them out to the end, never asking if the completed task was worth doing in the first place, or whether they had a good time doing it. The positive note sounded in Murray’s art is the genuine pleasure she takes in the very activity of painting as an ironic rebellion against imposed ideas of artistic propriety.

Jeff Perone