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The ID tags for the works on display in "Ian Murray," a one-man show now at Art Frenzie in Wilton Manors, are vague and a little misleading. "Oil pastel, printing ink" is a typical combination. Most of the pieces are on paper, although a few are identified simply as "acrylic" and are clearly on canvas. Dimensions and dates are not provided.
I've always been mystified by the tendency of commercial galleries -- and sometimes museums, too -- to be stingy with information about the art they're showcasing (and expecting to sell for considerable sums). While it may not be necessary to know that a given piece is, say, 24 by 36 inches and was created in 1988, such information is often helpful. And when an artist is experimenting with various combinations of media and techniques, as Ian Murray is, details about the "ingredients" of a piece are even more provocative.
A sketchy artist's statement provides a few tantalizing tidbits about Murray's approach: "The majority of the work I produce is developed through manipulating paper and its surface texture and is typically experimental in both layout and media. A process may include: searing of wet images with hair spray and a naked flame; bleaching out of images; and scratching through layers of imagery."
Most of the rest of the statement consists of the usual ramblings to which so many artists resort when trying to communicate about their work. "I am constantly trying to stretch the parameters of the narrow agenda for which I have set myself," Murray writes. "With this in mind one can see that accidents are the foundation of transition and must be capitalized upon." What, exactly, are we to make of such opaque musings?
OK, so we're left pretty much on our own. It's obvious from the start that Murray's work might best be characterized as mixed media. A piece such as The Icarus Element, for example, consists of a sheet of pale beige paper about the size of a page of ordinary notebook paper. The image is dominated by a spiral of dark brown that turns out to be the imprint of a stove burner (the "element" of the title?) burned into the paper. A gold square with a large A floats off-center on the upper right side of the spiral, and beneath it are eight small panels of paper, each embossed with a large A like the one on the gold square.
To identify the medium of this striking piece simply as "paper," as the ID tag does, is to do it an injustice.
I counted nearly 70 pieces in the show, an impressive total for the space allotted to Murray, which amounts to roughly half of this small gallery. Pieces are hung from high on the wall down to floor level, so that you have to crouch or even sit to see some of them to their best advantage. Toward the back of the gallery, four large, unframed acrylic canvases hang from the ceiling in a sort of box formation. A couple of pieces sit on easels; others are propped up on the floor.
Since there's no real progression to the show, it's best to meander randomly among Murray's works, allowing one piece to direct you back to another you looked at earlier. The repetitions in these pieces encourage such wandering, so that we can pick up on the visual echoes bouncing among them.
It was only after going back and forth a few times from City Cafe and Urban Virgin, two pieces toward the front of the gallery, to Could Have Been, a piece tucked away near a back corner of the gallery, that I began to pick up on some unexpected associations. Could Have Been, for instance, alludes to the big, busy silk-screens Andy Warhol used to produce. (It even includes a few headshots of Warhol.)
But consider Could Have Been as part of a sequence of sorts that also includes City Cafe and Urban Virgin, as well as another piece in between called Puppets and Pawns, and a different set of suggestions arises. The dense, layered imagery is vaguely reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg's huge mixed-media works of the late '80s from his ambitious ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange) series. The repetitive, overlapping components of the images never quite resolve themselves, and that lack of resolution energizes the pictures.
Murray also acknowledges the influence of commercial art, including magazine layouts, on his work, and in some cases this isn't necessarily a good thing. Several of the pieces rendered in oil pastel and ink are only a notch or two above interior decorator art. Connection of Hues features a pleasing palette of rich purples, oranges, and golds, but compositionally it's on the bland side; the same is true of a piece from the artist's "Crash Test Dummies Series."
Paradoxically Murray gets much more forceful effects when he restricts himself, as in Primary Blue. This large oil pastel is a minimalist composition created exclusively with shades of blue. Several light blue concentric rings float near the top of a rectangle of mottled darker blue, which in turn floats on a sea of very dark blue. The piece is instantly recognizable as a descendant of the big, stark canvases for which Mark Rothko remains best known.
Murray also gets more with less in a tiny piece called Arizona Landscape, which is perhaps four by four inches and was created with printing ink. A jagged, irregular horizontal line near the top of the paper suggests a horizon separating a murky sky from the dark, earthy tones below, which are less an actual landscape than an evocation of a landscape.
The artist apparently uses bleach to achieve the washed-out look of "The Voyeuristic Cubist Series." The show is full of these fuzzy images of a male nude in various poses, which have the feel of hand-tinted photographs. There's a haunting quality to some of these pictures that gives way to a numbing sameness after a while, maybe because there are so many of them (including a stack of matted, unframed ones for sale near the gallery entrance). Murray has been to the well a few times too often for this series.
Several of the medium-size pieces group as many as 20 individual panels together, for an image-within-an-image effect. Sometimes the smaller panels are variations on the same visual theme, as in Pool Vision, in which each of 20 panels of approximately six inches square has a sunburst or moonlike sphere in its center.
For the show's single best work, a mixed-media piece called Humanity, Murray places 15 snapshot-size portraits on a white background, arrayed in five rows of three each. The portraits are executed in dramatically different styles, each expressing a different shade of human emotion, giving the piece a cumulative effect far greater than that of its individual components.
Humanity also serves to highlight Murray's versatility. One more or less realistic head of a formally dressed man recalls the young Frank Sinatra, while another uses cubist-style elements to suggest a face. One panel features a woman's head painted in garishly bright red, and another is a blurry chiaroscuro interpretation of a female nude. Two screaming heads even echo Francis Bacon's notorious portraits of screaming popes. There is no other piece in the show that is quite like this one, leaving us to wonder if it's an older work or one heralding a new direction for this clearly talented, if uneven, artist.
Art Frenzie typically features an eclectic variety of works by various artists crammed into its little corner spot in the Shoppes of Wilton Manors. For the Ian Murray show, the owners have stored much of their stock elsewhere, giving these pieces at least a fraction of the display space they deserve.