Binaries and Body Parts
Text: Lara Taubman : Photo: N/A
The artist Elizabeth Murray has forged through visual arts trends over the span of a forty year career. Her characteristic insistence of remaining true to her vision, which has always included the tradition of oil painting and constructed canvases, has rendered Murray and her work as steadfast in the international art world. Her paintings describe her artistic process and her stoic ability to maintain balance within the anxiety of opposition; a space in which there are no indications of what is to come yet finds a strength by having faith in the present.
Phoenix was fortunate to have had Murray visit in January when she gave a lecture at the Scottsdale Museum of Art. Her open disposition and her ability to articulate as a painter allowed me to see into the mind of the artist in places that are usually off limits.
Murray is the archetypal painter whose principled devotion to her work recalls the
statement of my first art teacher Pat Adams who said: "Devoting your life to
painting is like getting married to God." Pat was not suggesting organized religion but ideas of endurance, perseverance and truth regardless of the circumstances. These are all ideals that reflect Murray's dogged insistence to remain true to the needs of her work and to the process of oil painting.
LT: The first and most obvious thing to ask you how you choose between making two-dimensional and three dimensional canvases but I want to approach the question by asking you about how you feel about the structure of color?
EM: Right now the kind of things I am working on, I guess, are more about arrangement than structure. What I am doing is building a structure of a lot of small shapes that are all two-dimensional. The way I get it to come together or resolve it is how I get color to arc through the spaces. I have a lot of strategies for trying to start these paintings; it is stream of consciousness, throwing down colors and shapes and then standing back and seeing where I am. Sometimes I will want that color to be there and sometimes it’ll just be there and I have that color and I put it here. Then you step back and start the process and get it to work somehow. There is so much of an emotional process going on too; like how a bunch of green starts to work with a bunch of red. Color to me is about light; it’s about creating real light and space. I think structure of color is a good phrase but how I achieve it I don’t know. There’s a process as well as a lot of ways to put the color down on the canvas.
LT: I think I am trying to find my way into a discussion about the most obvious issue of the three-dimensionality of your work by going through the back door so to speak.
EM: Well, the thing is I haven’t been working three-dimensionally for some time now and the reason I stopped for five or six years was because I was working with shapes that are flat, or mostly flat, I mean some shapes are overlapping but it’s very subtle. But what happened to me was first of all I got tired of trying to fit paint into the shapes. I was just copying the shapes and there was no illusion anymore. And the color stopped being color; it was becoming shadow. There was just fitting the shapes together and coloring them. That was primarily why I started working flat again, I wanted the color to have its own light.
LT: I noticed that your current work seems more insidious. It seems like your work is more about a cartoon character with fangs. The feeling of this character seems to coincide with the way your work is about pushing out of the edges of your mind rather than pushing out of the edges of the canvas as it has characteristically been in the past.
EM: Well, first of all I wanted to get rid of the cup image. I was really tired of it along with the saucers and tables as well as with the three dimensional shapes. I felt that I had gone as far as I could go with that. I know that three dimensionally there is more to be done there but somebody else is going to have to do it. I did several totally flat paintings and one was with the cup image, they were clearly recognizable as the cup. One in particular did feel like the cartoon character with fangs. They felt jumpier and jivier and exploded more than other paintings that I had done. Whenever I’m not sure where I am going to go I return to the flat canvas and see how I want to develop an image. Then I decided to do these paintings with smaller shapes which helped me get into an abstraction where I am working with images but the images are broken up in different kinds of ways. So there’s a conflict and a puzzle there – like you put it back together. Some of the images are clear to me and some of the images are potato heads that could turn into anything.
LT: That leads me back to the idea that your work addresses the issue of the difference between “broken” and “rupture.” I notice this quality in all of your work. When you break the canvases up into those little shapes what is your intent? The idea of “rupture” to me is that there is a cut in something which is a part of and affecting an entire existing system where “broken” is just a clean and final break.
EM: Well, a “rupture” feels more final like a final parting to me – that’s how I think about it but “broken” means the same thing too. They are both good words – you know there’s a difference between feeling and thinking and ultimately they are very tied in with one another in the same way that our brains are connected to our bodies; but they are very loaded words that are painful in way. Like “broken” and “rupture” both imply a painful thing, and what is satisfying to me is to make the two come together. And in my recent work everything is attached – it’s like wanting both things at the same time. All the shapes are for the most part connected. They are broken, or they suggest broken, but at the same time they are physically connected. So I think I want to get that motion of both things happening all at once.
LT: Robert Storr, the art critic, once used the phrase of “stylistic opposites” to describe your work. I thought that was a fancy “visual language” of referring to the idea of the binary. I want to hear how you feel the idea of a binary applies to your work.
EM: Well I think a binary to me means dualities or oral tautologies in a way, like two ends of the same thing. But I do think it is completely applicable to how I feel inside of what I am trying to develop when I am painting. And I know that it’s a very psychically satisfying thing that I have this and I have that opposite thing but that there is a way to resolve them somehow. Sometimes I am really not sure if my intention is to resolve them or if my intention is to leave them – like just present the duality. You want to know what you are doing up to a point and you don’t want to know what you are doing up to a point. So those things are always operating inside of art making. How you balance that stuff out is how you ultimately give to people in your work, like how you manage to resolve this one little place in your life which is this painting.
LT: It’s interesting how you put so much work into the canvas alone. The stretcher shapes and the attention to the paint are conspicuous to the point that it becomes a clear message that art making for you is so much about process and that issue alone becomes a part of the subject matter in the work.
EM: It is and that is how I think it is like life, it really is. There’s a purpose to it, or you hope there’s a purpose to it and it’s about a lot of hope. And it’s about getting up in the morning and putting on your clothes and cobbling this stuff together.
LT: I am interested in what you have to say about the corporeal sensibility in your work. I am not going to say towards just the female body; I think that’s too restrictive. I think your work is about any body, any mammalian body. Because throughout the course of all your work there is always an idea of how the body relates through internal/external, moving inward and outward - again the binary. Even a work like “Terrifying Terrain” which you made in 1990 that one critic likened to a bullet hole wound and this is where I realized that your work is not getting more ironic, it is getting more insidious.
EM: I think it’s interesting that you use the word insidious because I know what you mean by insidious – it is also violent. I think there is that aspect to my work but usually people say “oh, it’s so joyful, it’s so happy and the cartoony stuff!” and I think “okay.” But that’s not what’s always going on there in my mind.
Okay – the body – well, I think the “cup” surely represented the body and it’s not just female, it male and female, I think even dog bodies. Tables represent bodies and that was a way that I could put into play, not in a coy way, but truly in a way that expresses images that come out of you. Like learning to draw by looking at cartoons definitely affected how I see things in motion and how linear things and inflated shapes sort of come out of me. It’s me but there is a kinetic way that things move in cartoons in time that really fascinates me that get me to use a cup or use something coming out of a cup to suggest the body in motion. But I would never say that they are figurative because they are not. I think there are more body shapes in the work that I do now.
LT: Yeah. Well that’s what really got me thinking that there are pieces of bodies in your recent works; it’s never a whole shape.
EM: Yeah, there are hands and fingers; there are sexual organs – plus a lot of other stuff!
LT: I am noticing, and even with my own drawings, that artists are looking beyond the flesh and into bodies using the “spare parts” so to speak, as images.
EM: Yeah. There is something going on, I mean I am not a Jungian understanding collective unconscious but I do think there is an exploration going on of what is underneath the surface-how do we symbolize something more primal even beyond that?
LT: I don’t know what your relationship to Cézanne is in your work anymore as I know that earlier he had a lot of influence in your work.
EM: Well, you know when I was a student, Cézanne was, for some reason, the first artist whose work when I saw it that I realized a person did the painting.
LT: What do you mean by that?
EM: Well, there’s something so human and kooky about his work. Like the way he was taught to me when I was a student was very analytical, like all the Hans Hoffman “push-pull” thing and I didn’t see that at all. I just saw him as humanity and the nuttiness and clumsiness in his work and yet the way he broke down reality was so unreal. You know, like the way he saw things was real, like he didn't just try to look at the surfaces of things- he tried to break them apart and put them back together again. His color was so gorgeous and the Mediterranean color was so pure in a way. I could never make that color and my method is so different and always has been, but I pored over him as a student and I still do. I rarely see a Cézanne that doesn’t take me totally into it to look at it and examine it. But when you look closely (at his work) it is all about process and structure and taking things apart and putting them back together again. His view of the world is so touching to me, very, very touching. I think that’s what I wanted for my painting, I wanted to make a world for myself the way that he made a world for himself. The difference is he was completely involved in nature, nature was his god, and was always looking outward and for me that’s not true, nature is a part of everything. It’s a part of Richard Serra’s work, it’s a part of my work. It’s not the way Cezanne used it – like, I walk around New York City now which is completely closed in a way. And it’s in my work, or I come here and I like to walk around the Grand Canyon a lot. I know the influence of nature is in my work but I would be at a loss to point out through representation that this is the Grand Canyon or a desert scape.
LT: What do you feel is the meaning of the endless death and resurrection of painting over the past forty years?
EM: Well, painting is something that’s been around for thousands of years. It’s probably people and artists from within the art world periodically saying I’m tired and I want to do something different, which is totally legitimate. I think our century, our time, has something to do with photography in the way that the photograph really challenged the job of painting. As David Hockney so brilliantly points out artists had a lot of tools they just didn’t have the chemistry, so the artist’s job was to make the likeness of an individual look as realistic as possible. An artist used to be completely dependent on the King’s court, the Popes, or the aristocracy to support them. After the photograph, these things were unneeded in painting so it brought about a whole new phase. To me it’s not surprising that with the photograph comes the Impressionist movement and a whole new way of looking at reality. To me one of the things that happened with the camera or film is that a lot of people felt that painting was simply too hard, who needed it? As painting pushed in new directions and became stranger and stranger, it also becomes more elitist. To many people it gained a sense of purpose but to others it lost its meaning. The average person going to a museum wants to look at realistic work, they don’t want to look at art that challenges their perceptions, like my work or a Pollock or even something like a Phillip Guston might be more than they would want to deal with. But I think it also has a lot to do with television.
LT: What do you mean?
EM: I think people raised looking at television are accustomed to very “cool” and “fast” and painting is “slow” and “long” and you have to stop and look at it. Then you have to go away and look at it again. Television eyes are television eyes and painting is for people who want a different kind of feeling where they want to explore life in a different kind of way. I guess it’s just old fashioned. It’s hot and it’s about touch and I think it can annoy people. They don’t want to look at something that’s gushy and hot and human in that way. So I don’t know if that’s the right answer but that’s the way I see it. For me, it’s just a phenomenon and people are always going to be painting because it’s just an interesting thing to do. As long as there’s paint and our DNA collectively has paint in it. I think we’re genetically coded. Nobody can explain why we do it and what it’s for and they shouldn’t.
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