3 - 20 Oct 2018
Opening Night | Thursday 4 Oct, 6pm–8pm
Unseen continues Murray's enduring exploration of the traditions of trompe l’oeil and investigation of the ‘anatomy’ of painting - specifically the relationship between the intrinsic and extrinsic architecture of the two dimensional canvas and the wall on which it is installed. Small paintings of air vents/grilles/chutes and similar architectural utilities are installed to masquerade as functional architectural elements throughout the Gallery and disappear into the white cube. These works are faithfully modeled on examples from various buildings throughout Melbourne including the Nicholas Building as well as those made in Berlin from a three-month residency at the Phasmid Studios in Marzahn (July-Sept 2017). This work alludes to the possibility of these functional elements not only enabling breath by means of ventilation or air circulation but hearing as they perform like ears – almost listening to the building’s activity. Perhaps too, they metaphorically operate as eyes – allowing a glimpse into the past and the rich history embodied in the Nicholas Building - acting as conduits to hidden ‘realities’.
seen and unseen relations in Jan Murray’s recent paintings
The time in which a painting could defensively refer exclusively to itself has long passed. So too has the literal relationship between the world and painting that preceded this once modern fixation. Likewise, the more recent and relatively short-lived time in which painting was reducible a sign for activating contexts of display and consumption, has also faded into history. Broadly speaking, exclusive forms of referentiality (to medium, context, or otherwise) have all been roundly demonstrated as both impossible and profoundly limiting. Fortunately, some of the strategies and tools that these historical obsessions have left behind are now being repurposed to new ends. With former oppositionalities (such as abstraction and representation et al) largely evaporated, contemporary painters are arguably more interested in engaging with questions of object versus image. And, for some contemporary painters actively engaging with imagery, historical questions of context, scale, pattern, and verisimilitude have become important for a new set of reasons. Importantly, for these painters, relationships between image, object and context of display can be activated without resorting to now exhausted positions.
Today, in addressing distinctions between the image and the object status of a work, some painters are more focussed upon activating a dynamic passage between image and object than upon privileging the status of one over the other. In this sense, a painting can interact with architectures and conditions of display in the broader world whilst at the same time remaining attuned to its status and qualities as both image and object. Although the painted surface cannot be an analogue of nature, it nonetheless remains inextricably connected to the continuum of reality. At this juncture, it is no coincidence that a more nuanced elevation of these complex and mutually insufficient concerns can now form part of a larger grappling with the implications of the flattening and collapsing of space that characterises contemporary existence. Fortunately for painters, these shifts have once again brought painting out of a rarefied discourse and prematurely declared obsolescence and opened it up to a broader range of possible concerns. How do paintings perform as a register of both image and object, and as a register of the contexts of both production and reception in contemporary existence?
Against this backdrop, Jan Murray’s recent paintings—whose striking verisimilitudes of specific architectural utilities at once impersonate functional architectural features and perform as a register of the virtuosic labour of their generation—punctuate the viewing experience with a transitional moment that effectively slides between immersion, contemplation and the world beyond the image⇄object. This transition between immersion and an expanded realm of contemplation is fundamental to an experience of viewing Murray’s recent work. Importantly, this transition also lies at the core of painting’s enduring capacity to be at once inside and outside itself. Perhaps, with some vantage, this is what the formalists, the conceptualists, and the poststructuralists all missed when they threw their proverbial babies out with the bathwater—that is, the dynamic mutual insufficiency of material and contextual elements.
What is real here? What is an illusion? Murray effectively re-presents everyday functional ubiquities, and then invites us to look again. At first glance, these works are so beautifully executed that the viewer could at least momentarily assume that they are indeed looking at a ventilation portal. Yet they are also quite obviously paintings. The tradition of art as form of illusionistic trickery is of course rich and varied. The trompe l'oeil technique of the ancient world—an illusionistic method applied in both painting and architecture—was rediscovered to great effect in the Renaissance era. Later, in Modernism, the trompe-l’oeil technique became a vehicle with which to cast doubt in regard to established modes of representation and lure the viewer via the image into illusionistic space—and by extension, into the history of two-dimensional representation itself. But, as we have already established, Murray is working in a very different time.
In order to momentarily suspend our disbelief, Murray first engages our enduring desire for immediacy. Realism in painting is of course historically related to illusionism and the seemingly truthful representation of subjects via visual mimesis or verisimilitude. It is here that Murray knows that we can still be seduced. Yet this seduction, which is still anchored to our remarkably resistant desire to somehow make this most historically ubiquitous medium disappear, and furthermore to believe (even if fleetingly) that the resulting mediated illusion is tangible, is only the first key ingredient in Murray’s recipe for a good painting. What can a painting be without its supporting architectures, the surrounding social contexts of display, and the contextualising apparatus of the medium’s towering history? Given the many ways in which our relationship with painting remains indebted to the moves and countermoves that now constitute its history, it is a remarkable thing that we can still (even if momentarily) cast it all aside and be seduced again. Yet, as Murray is well aware, we then need something else in store in order to sustain our attention. Here, Murray, in implicitly activating relationships between the architectures of the canvas and the exhibition environment, implicates a series of subtle oscillations between the two-dimensionality of the painted image and the three dimensionalities of the painting-as-object.
Given the historically canonical status of painting as both medium and object, we might wonder why we still categorically distinguish it from sculpture (or indeed art more broadly) in a post-medium world. Clement Greenberg once famously claimed that in order to claim autonomy, painting must aim to exorcise all that it shares with sculpture. Here, he took particular aim at the recognisable object. Today, paint on canvas finds itself in an unbounded realm of possibilities that is at least as conditioned by broader patterns of image⇄object dissemination and reception as it is by the legacies of its own history. Although, and unlike its evolutions within modernism, painting has traded medium-specific categorisations for dynamic and discursive understandings whilst at the same time maintaining something of its bloodline. Still clearly informed by idiosyncratic conditions pertaining to its form, display, circulation and critical reception, painting has both expanded far beyond its internal concerns and maintained them. Somehow, painting is now both part of the generic categorical ontology of contemporary art and a remarkably resistant category on its own right.
In a gentle play between the formerly antipodean concerns of grid, verisimilitude and pattern, Murray provides us with one of many answers to the contemporary problem of the image ⇄object in painting. Painting might never again be capable of being seen as meaningfully autonomous from the world in which it necessarily exists. Accordingly, the contemporary painter invariably seeks to establish and maintain relationships between the material existence of a painting as image and object and with the social and architectural contexts of its display. Although Murray might not reveal these relationships explicitly, she is clearly acutely aware of this complex constellation of mutually insufficient concerns. Why not accept the intriguing objecthood and seductive illusionism that a wall-mounted painted surface can still possess whilst remaining mindful of its inevitable interaction with entities and networks outside of itself? Although a given painting can still be specific, its content and context cannot be stable and singular. All paintings now occupy a doubled existence, for they are at once discrete objects and networked images. Murray’s paintings revel in this curious contemporary doubled existence without resorting to literally representing it.
- Sean Lowry
Jan Murray completed her postgraduate qualifications at the VCA and RMIT University. Since 1981 she has shown regularly in both solo and group exhibitions in public museums, commercial galleries and artist run initiatives. Her work has been included in national and international surveys of contemporary art in Australia, Germany, France, Italy and the USA, and is widely represented in significant Australian public collections as well as the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She has received an Australia Council Project Grant and her Australia Council Residencies include Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Via Farini, Milan the British School at Rome. Recent residencies include Phasmid Studios, Berlin in 2016-17. She is represented by Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne.
Dr. Sean Lowry is a Melbourne-based artist and writer. He holds a PhD in Visual Arts from The University of Sydney, and is currently Head of Critical and Theoretical Studies in Art at Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Lowry has exhibited and performed extensively both nationally and internationally, and his published writing appears in numerous journals and edited volumes. His conceptually driven practice employs strategies of concealment, subliminal quotation, erasure, remediation and intermedial expansion to explore the outermost limits of the world of a work of art. He is also Founder and Executive Director of Project Anywhere, and one half (with Ilmar Taimre) of The Ghosts of Nothing.
IMAGE | Jan Murray, Chute (Police Hospital), 2017, oil on linen, 23 x 28cm | Photo Shoufay Derz| Courtesy of the artist.