You can’t help but smile while looking at the exhibition of paintings and prints by Elizabeth Murray at Stony Brook University. Her sensual work, combining grandeur in scale with a Baroque excess, inspires pure joy.
Skip to next paragraph Ellen Page Wilson/Pacewildenstein, New YorkElizabeth Murray’s “Bop” (2002-3), is on exhibit at Stony Brook University.
Fun is not quite the right word to describe these playful, zany images, for they are also pensive, the product of trial and error, the artist concocting challenging and dynamic compositions with bits of painted wood or canvas.
Ms. Murray’s art had a serious art historical purpose, at least when she first began creating it, as a series of her early three-dimensional works assembled here reveals. Back then, in the early 1980s, she was determined to break down the last remnants of the walls dividing conventional categories of art-making.
Ms. Murray (1940-2007) liked to combine colorful, cartoonish shapes and forms. Together they seem to be “jittering, exploding, jumping on or off the walls,” as the author Francine Prose writes in the exhibition catalog. The result is more than a painting, but not quite a sculpture. It also seems to have something in common with collage.
Ms. Murray’s art does not just straddle disciplines, genres and styles. Look closely and you will find that it also breaches other demarcations: between comedy and horror, emotion and reason, childhood and adulthood, the natural and the artificial. It is done in such a way that the whole is always much more than the mere sum of its parts.
Take, for example, “Bop” (2002-3), an enormous three-dimensional painting installed in the main gallery, where it fills much of a wall. Though the basis of the composition is a series of jumbled, rather mundane-looking abstract shapes in a variety of colors, together they unify into something that is marvelously mysterious and alluring. To me, the piece looks something like a street scene viewed simultaneously from oblique angles.
This quality of unification, the sense of disparate shapes and forms somehow pulling together, with the picture fragmented and unstable yet simultaneously coherent, is what I admire about Ms. Murray’s paintings. And it is not an easy thing to achieve.
A few years ago in an interview for “Art: 21,” the PBS documentary series focusing on art in the 21st century, Ms. Murray described her method as a bit like that of a safecracker: “You have got your ear up against the safe, and you are listening for the right click, for the right cylinders to drop down.”
The analogy nicely captures her intuitive mode of working. It also suggests how we might respond to the nearly 30 pieces collected here. As nonrepresentational paintings, they contain no specific narrative or purpose. They invite us rather to take interest and pleasure in color and form and unexpected visual relationships. They celebrate our being in the world.
At the same time, these works seem to reflect different physical and emotional states. Anxiety and confusion can be read into “Morning Is Breaking” (2006), with its tangle of energetic lines and abundance of vaguely recognizable yet unnamable shapes and forms.
I am not entirely sure what to make of “Kind of Blue” (2004), another giant, three-dimensional painting of oil on canvas over wood. More than in the other paintings here, the imagery in this work is fragmented, unstable and intense. It looks like the contents of a house being picked up and carried off by a tornado.
The exhibition includes a short film about Elizabeth Murray produced and directed by Kristi Zea. It is a pleasing pastiche of interviews with influential New York art world figures and footage of the artist in her studio or installing paintings for shows shortly before her death, from cancer. The film ends with her saying: “It never occurred to me I could make a success of this. I think I’ve been really lucky.”
For those who saw Ms. Murray’s 2005 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, this show is unlikely to expand or enhance understanding of the artist. It mostly covers similar ground. But for anyone who missed that show, or who has a serious interest in great art, this is the one exhibition on Long Island right now that cannot be missed.
?Elizabeth Murray,? University Art
Gallery, Staller Center for the Arts,
Stony Brook University, through
Dec. 13. Information: (631) 632-7240
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