R. Holland Murray

Liane and Danny Taran Gallery, Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts

In his recent show, R. Holland Murray presented hand-carved wood sculptures that fuse allusions to totemic motifs and utilitarian design, in human-scale works that at times resemble weapons or implements. The pieces are assembled with such a delicate sense of balance that civility and violence seem, momentarily, to co-exist. Murray has said that he was inspired by the intricate and interlocking surfaces of Japanese joinery technique, but the carved abstract and figurative details on many of the works also suggest other non-Western sources.

There is a strange fragility to the way these works are put together. In Two Crossed Legs, 1995, from the “Parallax(e)” series, the lower part of a vertical oak shaft is unevenly, almost amateurishly formed. The center section features elaborately carved geometric patterns reminiscent of African sculpture while the uppermost part is finely turned like a factory-produced table leg. The entire shaft is supported by a small horizontal oak bar hewn to a dangerous point at both ends and resting on two crosses, each made up of a pair of similarly tapered bars. In Five Feet and One Leg, 1995, the textural physicality of the swooping Brancusi-like carved “leg” contrasts with the five long metal nails projecting, rakelike, from a supporting bar.

With their multiplicity of references, Murray’s latest sculptures explore the objects, icons, and products we build to ensure our cultural survival. In the simple Vancouver Works #1 and #2, 1998, wooden spikes are placed on the gallery floor like pieces from a giant’s game of jacks. Asterisk, 1998, repeats these starlike forms in Oilstix on paper, while another multipanel series of works on paper, dating from 1995 to 1998, juxtaposes a gestural abstract style with a crazy quilt of images, forms, patterns, and words, including totemic male figures, ogival shields, and sentence fragments such as “You Know What They Say.” Many of the artist’s sources remain unknowable, perhaps recalling Claude Lévi-Strauss’s lesson that totemic art has more to do with representing modes of thought than particular sentiments or expressions. Murray himself observes in the exhibition catalogue: “Finally, it doesn’t matter what you make. It is all about what you discover in making it, what you learn about the materials. the medium, and yourself. . . . It is a dialogue between what we know and what is about to be revealed.”

John K. Grande