Unreal Nature

September 12, 2016

Homemade Bombs

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… they are homemade bombs that have just exploded — or are about to.

Continuing through the book that accompanied her MoMA retrospective; Elizabeth Murray by Robert Storr (2005):

… “Catastrophe” may strike some as too strong a word for what transpires in Murray’s pictures. Quite possibly, but as things come apart in her work, and then come back together in unexpected, often chaotic ways, one can’t help but think that something pretty dramatic happened to the classical ideal of still life painting. And it has. Traditionally still life could speak both of its own specific, frequently humble reality and, by analogy, of more consequential things in the world beyond.

[line break added] Even so, it remained for the most part the art of formal arrangement, and tended toward harmonious balance among its carefully selected components. The tables in still lifes may be covered with fine fabrics, china, and silver and heaped with exotic foodstuffs and treasures, as in those painted by the artists of seventeenth-century Holland to represent the farthest reaches of that seafaring country’s mercantile empire, or they may be as sparsely laid as those of the Spanish bodegone painters of the same period or of the eighteenth-century Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Chardin.

[line break added] Yet no matter how jumbled or how Spartan the display, once it was put in place, there was no question of any part of it going anywhere. Some potential exceptions might be heralded by the presence of a living animal poised to snatch a treat out from under the artist’s nose — but not to toss the entire affair up for grabs, as the dog in Sleep is about to do.

murray_sleep
Elizabeth Murray, Sleep, 1983-84

With Cézanne, Murray’s first artistic love, that changes. Although the Post-Impressionist master never tipped over his still lifes, his way of skewing perspective and abruptly raising or lowering his vantage point often tilted compositions to the verge of spilling their contents to one side or the other, or into the viewer’s lap. Under his darting gaze, what had once been the most reliably stable of painterly situations — and the antithesis of the turmoil characteristic of the highest genre, history painting — became the most subtly precarious.

[line break added] When people entered the scenes of that Cézanne set, they were subjected to the same spatial anomalies. Thus, although Mme. Cézanne may initially seem to sit comfortably in her chair, chances are she is gradually losing her position, and her equilibrium, in what one is tempted to infer is her husband’s inner view of her place in the household.

[line break added] (Doubling back, it should not be forgotten that Murray, in her tongue-in-cheek homage to Cézanne’s peculiar marital icons, pushed Mme. Cézanne’s chair sharply forward and dumped her out.) Thereafter, modernist still life oscillated between the preternatural quietude of Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi and the shattered facets of Cubists and Futurists like Braque, Gris, Léger, Picasso, and Umberto Boccioni, or the uncannily oozing forms of the Surrealists Dali and Miró.

[line break added] In varying degrees, as noted, Murray embraced the precedents established by all of these artists, but her emphatically unstill lifes greatly increase the scale of the events they propel into motion while compressing the action into the fissionable nucleus of a handful of primary recombinant forms. From this angle, Murray’s cups and glasses are not only bodies awkwardly attempting to contain or fuse with other bodies, they are homemade bombs that have just exploded — or are about to.

murray_snakecup
Elizabeth Murray, Snake Cup, 1984

My most recent previous post from Storr’s book is here.

-Julie

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