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History, Visual Art, and Theory, and the Faculty of Arts at The University of British Columbia, STRESSLIMITDESIGN, the Program in Canadian Studies at The University of British Columbia, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Lotus Hotel Limited, and the UBC Alma Mater Society.
We would like to extend our thanks to Scott Watson, Owen Sopotiuk, Dave Steele, Annette Wooff, Julie Bevan, Jana Tyner and Siobhán Smith at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. At the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at The University of British Columbia, we would like to extend our thanks to Whitney Friesen and William Wood. We would like to also extend our thanks to the Bilton Centre for Contemporary Art and Gavin John Sheehan for lending works for the exhibition, and MarieHélène Tessier and the Patrick Mikhail Gallery for facilitating the delivery of works.
An impossible yet necessary task For the support that is weighty yet evades and exceeds easy quantification, we would like to extend our deep gratitude to: my colleagues, confessors, and better thirds, Kim Nguyen and Alison Rajah; the wise Widyarini Sumartojo; the life-saving Liz Park; the Boy with the Curious Eyes; the true Jessica Besser-Rosenberg; the sublime Erin Dunigan and Sïan Evans; the always-welcoming Matwichuk-Bitze household; the unfailingly generous Catherine Lamer and Emma Park; the provocative Ryan Peter; the helpful and humorous Colin Miner; the lovely Ashley Bilodeau; the questioning Supper Series participants; our mutual friends Jesse Proudfoot and Ingrid Petro; our friends who are unnamed here, but not forgotten; Halifax, Montréal, Calgary, and Vancouver (you know what you did to us); and our families, whose love and belief makes all things possible.
the strange s p a c e that will keep us together 8 March to 6 April 2008
I Don’t Let Her Sit In Snaky Places, 2006 acrylic on board Courtesy of the artist You’d Be So Surprised If You Knew Me, 2006 acrylic on board Courtesy of the artist Looking Back On Your First Desktop Theme It Smells Like a Child's Potty, 2007 acrylic and foam on board Courtesy of the artist Why Are You Looking Up Here the Joke Is In Your Hand, 2007 acrylic and foam on board Courtesy of the artist Casual Friday Morning Coming Down, 2007 acrylic and foam on board Courtesy of the artist Sexing Up The Lipstick Pork, 2007 acrylic and foam on board Courtesy of the artist Intention Grading For The Modern Satanic Road Re-Surfacer, 2007 acrylic and foam on board Courtesy of the artist
Anorexic Beauty/ Featherweight Perfection, 2003 polyurethane on board Courtesy of the artist We Do Not Die We Discuss Dying, 2005 polyurethane and acrylic on board Courtesy of the artist Goodbye Booze I’m Going to Bed, 2005 polyurethane on board Courtesy of the artist Just Beyond My Neighbour’s House, 2005 polyurethane and acrylic on board Collection of Gavin John Sheehan They Might Be Ill But They Were Cruel, 2006 acrylic on board Courtesy of the artist She’s Imaginative She’s 23 Years Old She’s Brilliant She Stops Traffic, 2006 acrylic on board Courtesy of the artist Hey Girl You’re Ruthless Now So Am I Hey Hey, 2006 acrylic on board Collection of the Bilton Centre for Contemporary Art
the strange space that will keep us together: Painting and the Possibility of Postmodern Utopias
Here, therefore, we must let ourselves refer to an order that resists the opposition, one of the founding oppositions of philosophy, between the sensible and the intelligible. The order which resists this opposition, and resists it because it transports it, is announced in a movement of différance (with an a) between two differences or two letters, a différance which belongs neither to the voice nor to writing in the usual sense, and which is located, as the strange space that will keep us together here for an hour, between speech and writing, and beyond the tranquil familiarity which links us to one and the other, occasionally reassuring us in our illusion that they are two. -Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” Margins of Philosophy The present of art is always in the past and in the future. -Jacques Rancière, “Painting in the Text,” The Future of the Image What does it mean to believe in painting? For such a seemingly simple question, the answer is not so straightforward. Of what painting do I speak? Not painting as the subject of a teleological narrative, the kind presented in Introduction to Western Art undergraduate classes that begin with the Lascaux caves and end with Barnett Newman. I speak of painting from the modern period, when it broke away from its moorings in architecture and became yet another commodity in circulation. Painting as shaped by its final resting place, the museum, the institution of the bourgeois revolution. Painting – that old thing – bears the weight (and scars) of its history: the most privileged of media, with a plenitude of theoretical tracts behoving its status, and with an “umbilical cord of gold” connecting it to the ruling class.1 Painting, which in the 1960s and 1970s, was actively denounced by those who sought to undermine the hegemony of Greenbergian formalism. Voices critical of, “the ideological supports of painting, and the ideology which painting, in turn, supports,”2 dropped the gauntlet: once and for all, let us be rid of this burden. But is this familiar story to be believed? Gentle pressure applied to these generalizations reveals fissures of paradox. Dissenting voices and competing discourses existed to counter the influence of Greenberg and his coterie. Further, what is called “Greenbergian formalism” is not so monolithic, but marked by the contradiction between the claim that abstract art is “almost nothing else but sensuous,”3 and the serpentine reasoning within the writings of Greenberg that seeks to extract the experience of art from our impure, irrational flesh. More: from the very flesh of the world.4 Conversely, one must not think of painting as a martyr. Painting did not die with the advent of photography, nor with the emergence and proliferation of postmodern art discourses and practices. Any talk of its “re-birth” should be received warily, lest we be fooled by the triumphal advertising copy of auction houses. Yet, the continued resonance of a medium and style that seem so fraught, so overdetermined is curious. That painting is the commodity of art commodities seems a cynical and insufficient reason. Perhaps, then, it is time for a re-examination of the possibilities of and spaces opened up by painting, in particular, non-representational painting. Is there any good that can be salvaged from modern painting, so as to critique the postmodern malaise?5 In the manner in which the work of Wil Murray differs from his historical antecedents while invoking anew their underlying utopian aspirations, it is possible to locate some of the reasons for painting’s continued resonance – what it means to still believe in painting.
Perhaps the most evident way in which Murray’s work differs from the general tenets of modern formalism is in regards to the issue of surface volume. Murray builds surface volume by pouring layer upon layer of paint onto the support. He then cuts into the accrued layers of paint, thereby making manifest the surface depth. In a work such as Why Are You Looking Up Here The Joke Is In Your Hand (2007), sculptural masses are created by tacking a paint skin down to the support and injecting it with spray foam, or by painting directly the hardened spray foam. In Murray’s most recent work, for example, Sexing Up The Lipstick Pork (2007), paint skins are draped off and hung from the support. These sculptural masses seem to rupture through the layers of paint. They defy the flatness once thought unique to visual art and mock the masterful flat mark, thereby exceeding the generic conventions of painting and undermining the possibility of mediumistic autonomy. Moreover, the cutting and collaging of paint skins makes the paintings structurally contingent, as opposed to closed, discrete objects. The artist more frequently cites as influential to his practice figures from literature rather than from the visual arts. Murray notes the importance of William S. Burroughs, Flannery O’Connor, John Hawkes, and Djuna Barnes as shaping his attempt to thwart linearity and simultaneity in his work. In a piece like, Hey Girl You’re Ruthless Now So Am I Hey Hey (2007), the act of cutting into the surface of the paint and re-applying paint skins from this and other paintings – the collaging of the artist’s marks – yields a non-linear narrative that plays with personal pronoun use.6 This undermines the simultaneity of the completed work and the dominance of the “purely” ocular, insofar as the lack of a stable focal point and the partial ability to see the history of the work’s production confound unhampered visual consumption. The titles of the works themselves, which are taken from song lyrics, inside jokes, Murray’s grandmother’s aphorisms, drinking ditties, and so forth, suggest a disjointed internal narrative, or snatches of over-heard conversation. They have a quality of being at once familiar and strange, like the everyday at a different angle. Murray’s practice is highly suggestive of the everyday. These works are made over long spans of time and involve occasionally monotonous, occasionally fastidious, occasionally joyous labour, akin to everyday lived experience. When speaking about the feeling experienced upon the completion of a painting, the artist mused, “But was I relieved every time? Was I redeemed? Shit, I can’t remember. Do it again. Maybe the next painting will simply never end.”7 Marks made by pouring, cutting, collaging, and – since
2006 – applying paint with a brush evince the artist’s bodily labour. Metonymically, too, Murray’s paintings suggest the body’s labour in their sheer insistent materiality. These paintings are emphatically haptic, practically demanding to be touched. They are almost bodily in their occasionally abject quality, for example, in the spray foam sections of Sexing Up the Lipstick Pork or in the still-wet bubble of paint in Just Beyond My Neighbour’s House (2005). An encounter with a work like The Might Be Ill But They Were Cruel (2006) is a unnerving interaction: the lack of a specific focal point, replaced by a plethora of places to look, results in a struggle to know where one stands – or, really, where to stand at all – in relation to the work. One does not really stand in front of the works, so much as pace back and forth, away from and closer to the painting, trying to figure out how to relate to it. In turn, this bodily confrontation with the work can lead one’s thoughts to one’s own embodiment, and one’s inter-subject position – that one is never really “one,” that in the endless play of difference we do not exist without one another. I would argue that this is what abstract and nonrepresentational painting can access more directly in comparison to other modes of art making: by virtue of the generally manifest trace of the maker’s mark, our experience of and relationship to this kind of painting is generally more bodily, thereby encouraging a paradigm of vision that is more embodied, less conducive to objectification.8 By emphasizing the materiality of the works while making a simultaneous reading difficult, Murray’s work seems to negotiate the poles of vision and touch, transparency and opacity, to demonstrate how they are contingent. That is, one does not see an artwork from a monocular, transcendental position, but from the position of an embodied interpreter, with all the complexity and porousness that entails. Speaking of the aforementioned authors’ influence on his practice, Murray has said that “I am interested how personal pronoun use, point of view and narrative play in a work can, without self-conscious or purposeful obfuscation, solicit and order the chaos of quotidian horror, confusion, and terror in a form more permanent than its maker.”9 I understand these quotidian horrors as related to the contingency of subjectivity. Any real decision is an act of madness, a leap into an unknowable future and it, in turn, affects more than just the decider. How, then, do we begin to act when personal freedom is a fiction? Where to cut, how to order, how to collage together a life with meaning, a life that holds in tension personal satisfaction with some notion of the commons? I would argue that the strategic appropriation and
subsequent alteration of modern painting in Murray’s work creates a space to discuss the utopian underpinnings of the modernist project anew, to explore the shape that postmodern utopias could take. I interpret the non-representational nature of the works, their incommensurability almost to the point of absurdity, as crucial to their utopian aspirations. The non-representational nature of the works makes them highly polysemous, in that they reference the everyday world without representing it in a realistic manner. Thus, the paintings are open to a multiplicity of interpretations. These interpretations spill out and beyond, raising the possibility of new and other worlds where different subjective positions can be occupied. These different and deferring interpretations posit that change is possible, moreover, necessary: “Today, the socially critical aspect of artworks has become opposition to empirical reality as such because the latter has become its own self-duplicating ideology, the quintessence of domination.”10 In addition, the non-verbal quality of non-representational painting can open a space to speak of that which is as of yet unspeakable, as of yet beyond articulation. Since it is superfluous to the ends-means rationality of capitalism at its most base form, art’s very existence – its continued existence – proves the insufficiency of dominant ordering narratives.11 As the excesses of auction week attest, art can be a part of reproducing said ordering narratives. Nonetheless, it undercuts the fiction that there is only one way that the world can be organized. In its polysemic generosity, the painting of Wil Murray does not foreclose on the viewer’s possible interpretations, possible emancipations, that moment of disassociation with a socially constructed subjective position.12 Its everyday associations and the bodily confrontations it stages with the viewer propound that the emancipatory moment is not something out there at a cerebral remove, but possible within us in the most quotidian moments and spaces “Sometimes prayer is foisted on a mark.”13 To speak of utopia again is not to pine for days gone by or an autonomous existence free from necessity, but to re-engage the power of the notion itself and re-imagine what utopia could be from our current and varied positions. To speak of utopia is to raise questions without knowing the answers. It is to work towards an everyday praxis, one that yields a world where we can touch without blood on our hands. It is to yearn for and engender a space that will keep us together.
1 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 1, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 11. 2 Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 74. 3 Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 1, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 32. 4 “We have to reject the age old assumptions that put the body in the world and the seer in the body, or, conversely, the world and the body in the seer as in a box. Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh?” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 138. 5 “…the nihilism that has affected the intellectual class.” Jacques Rancière, interview by Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey, ArtForum 45.7 (March 2007): 262. 6 “Anything I may say about cut ups must sound like special pleading unless you do it for yourself. You cannot cut up in your head anymore than I can paint in my head. Whatever you do in your head bares the prerecorded pattern of your head. Cut through that pattern and all patterns if you want something new…. Cut through the word lines to hear a new voice off the page. A dialogue often breaks out. ‘It’ speaks.” Biron Gysin, “Cut Ups: A Project for a Disastrous Success,” in Back in No Time: The Biron Gysin Reader, edited by Jason Weiss (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001)126-127. 7 Wil Murray, “Thanks to Flannery O’Connor: A Redemption Song,” Burn Your Eyes Clean weblog, http://wilmurray.blogspot.com/2006/09/thanksto-flannery-oconnor-redemption.html (accessed September 12, 2007). 8 “When vision dominates, knowledge becomes centralized, abstracted, and distanced; with touch, experience is multiple, concrete, and proximate – close ‘at hand’.” Richard Schiff, “Constructing Physicality,” Art Journal 50.1 (Spring 1991): 43. 9 Wil Murray, “Artist Statement,” 2007. 10 Theodore W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert HullotKentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 255. 11 “In a society that has disaccustomed men and women from thinking beyond themselves, whatever surpasses the mere reproduction of their life and those things they have been drilled to believe they cannot get along without, is superfluous. What is true in the most recent rebellion against art is that – in the face of the absurdly incessant scarcity, the expanding and self-reproducing barbarism, the ever present threat of total catastrophe – phenomena that are not preoccupied with the maintenance of life take on a ridiculous aspect.” Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 243244. 12 The artist is also committed to this refusal to dictate meaning: “I refuse the pre-empting of the viewer… because there is nothing past them. If I thought I could see what they see, then my practise would be redundant, moreover: unnecessary…. They are… as necessary to the painting’s existence as I am.” Wil Murray, “Artist Statement,” 2005. 13 Murray, “Artist Statement,” 2006.
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