Monday, September 9, 2013

Ethan Murrow, American Ego @ la galerie particulière

Ethan Murrow, The Old Aristocratic Colours Breaking Through, 2013
On my way past the La Galerie Particulière the other night on my bike, I glanced through the crowd to glimpse Ethan Murrow’s images. I thought, from a distance I was looking at photographs. When I went back for a closer look, I was pleasantly surprised to find huge graphite on paper drawings, huge because this is a medium usually used for more intimate scale pictures. Murrow depicts a strange, archaic America inspired by, and at times, depicting well known American literary myths and legends, paintings and historical events. As a lady from the gallery walked around the exhibition identifying the references and influences in each work for me, I wondered if most viewers would have even heard of the names and narratives, let alone recognize them in Murrow’s drawings.

Ethan Murrow, The Boast of Clotilde, 2013
Nevertheless, when standing before an image such as Moby Dick, 2013, the ambiguities are not in the subject matter of the image. If only thanks to the title we are immediately made aware of the grand narrative of adventure and discovery that is woven through the exhibition. In spite of the realist detail of the image, there is always something surreal in Murrow’s drawings. The title Moby Dick, does not sit well with four wheel drive vehicles, in a canyon, on the shores of a lake that has no depth, tiny figures holding umbrellas or wearing hard hats, with no rain and no reason for protective headwear. And when an elephant falls into the water in The Old Aristocratic Colours Breaking though, he falls off a raft that could never have held him. We know we are in the world of magic and miracles with this image. And yet, the title of this drawing is taken from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through”.  Thus, we become alerted to the multiple layers of works that are all at once political, playful, art historical and technically precise.

Ethan Murrow, Early Warning System, 2013
Many of the images contain antiquated and clearly malfunctioning machines: helicopters, cars, or in Early Warning System, a chimpanzee sits on a raft surrounded by an infinite stretch of water, accompanied by an unwieldy machine that could not possibly get him to where he is going. This is espite the face that his raft is named “ABLE.” When technology is introduced, the historical becomes the arcane, in narratives that are made unreal, and filled with the promise of failure. The narratives that Murrow references, revises, critiques and makes fun of are always about the discovery and colonization of America. They are about the formation of the American identity, its flaws and foibles, built as it is on conspiracies, whale sightings, UFOs, supernatural and animal life.

Ethan Murrow, Kingdom, 2013
What I loved most about Murrow’s drawings was their complex layers, as I say, not all of which I had access to. These images discourse through narratives of discovery, the movies, the Colonization of the American West, in cutting and simultaneously, highly entertaining depictions. Similarly, Murrow’s drawings are technically superb: painstakingly detailed in their reach for photographic realism in the form of graphite drawings. 

All images courtesy the artist and La galerie particulière

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