"Brush Pierce #1," oil on linen,
44 x 44", 1996
by Marlena Doktorczyk-Donohue
(PaceWildenstein, Beverly Hills) Elizabeth Murray is like a fecund, independent little island everyone wants to claim as theirs. Nonetheless, she has been claimed by painters who use her lush, unapologetically plastic art to counter the postmodern claim that the canvas is dead. She has been claimed by feminists who feel the zany, formalist cups and other accoutrements of daily feminine experience that inhabit her canvases render the traditionally patriarchial endeavor of abstraction gender-fair. She has been lauded by sculptors because her works refuse to lay on 2-dimensions (but you cannot call them sculpture). And old school modernists love Murray because her work does not comment on its making, doesn't re-think its context, doesn't thumb its nose at its merchandizing. Like her hero Paul Cézanne, Murray's work is a simultaneous celebration of and calibration of pure color, shape, texture, and paint.
Murray recently added a kooky, over-stuffed caricaturish shoe to the public art that dots the environs of UC San Diego. Her paintings are so sculptural that this work is a logical progression, but somehow the tensions that are satisfying in her canvases, where shape and color threaten, like animated beings, to bulge off their constraints, simply do not work in three dimensions. Last year Murray also ended her 20-year relationship with New York's Paula Cooper Gallery, mounting her initial show of paper maquettes for paintings at PaceWildenstein's Manhattan space. Now we get a selection of her most recent paintings on canvas, linen and wood done over the last two years.
The work here builds on the ebullient, quirky-shaped canvases that have been her trademark since her first solo show in 1974. Great, clunky coffee cups, tables, flying paint brushes and other homey paraphernalia are forever in a state of maginally manic disarray. They appear blown up or warped by their sheer zeal or the physical pressure holding them in their eccentric planes.
Like the fruit and vase arrangements of Picasso, or Miro's Dutch Interior paintings, or even Oldenberg's foodstuffs, this is the still life genre filtered through a vanguard language, but here the intervening sensibility is indescribably plural rather than cubist, surreal or pop.
The good news is that the artist continues to infuse this work with enough energy and authenticity, enough art mixed with life, to intrigue. In Brush Piece #2 spikey looking fingers that could be extraterrestrial life or wayward vines grasp a chubby, banana-like paint brush with such tender urgency that the image is simultaneously childlike, unedited, gorgeously thought out, and regeneratively erotic.
That her work sits on a fault-line that resists pigeonholing helps account for its wide appeal. As whimsical as it all appears, these paintings are made in careful steps and require months to complete. The work is rigorously abstract, yet figuration and narrative are always looming. The formal elements possess a warm-blooded life that allows the abstract notion to enter our collective consciousness.
Formerly Fleet might be a precursor to the San Diego sculpture. It is made up of two pneumatic shoes tipped up against the viewing plane. These seem to be distorted by the force of their own wierd volume and by the pressure applied to them from the wayward edges that hold them. Worm-like laces run amuck all over and tie the two shoes together, rendering their ostensible function--locomotion--impossible.
The nuptial bed in Moonbeam has four meandering bedposts that bend like antennae and hover over potential sleepers like voyeurs or traps. Brushes that pierce, hands that bind, beds that entrap--this is not jaded irony or some worn-out metaphor for how we're "all tied up." It's more like a Saturday morning cartoon in which the goofey protagonists are animated objects that dance, trip, fall, fail, get twisted, stretched, but in the end always re-bound to win our heart.
This work serves as an analogue for our own out-of-joint cartoony world, where the simple things explode and implode, are pathetic and illogical, but also exuberant and redemptive. If the art world can get head-heavy, Murray, like an insouciant child not noticing anyone else on the playground, creates beauty from someplace in her wild and wacky heart.