Friday, January 31, 2014

"Her Story": Elizabeth Murray and Artistic Subversion

Elizabeth Murray "My Manhattan, January" Oil on Canvas 1987
I love the artwork of the painter, Elizabeth Murray. In fact her paintings and prints are my favorite of all artists. So you can imagine how delighted I was to view the exhibition of her artwork at Stanford University's Cantor Art Center. Murray has won numerous accolades for her art, including a MacArthur genius award. Although Murray has been proclaimed as a "female" artist based on her gender and the domestic nature of the themes in her art, I would venture to say that Murray's work goes way beyond the essentialization of gender roles: she subverts conventional female gender roles in a deeper analysis of her art. The above photo from her exhibition at the Cantor Art Center is a surreal integration of a fish form with interior biomorphic images, suggesting a womb, growth, and the rosiness of gestation. A stunning juxtaposition of scarlet and teal. The exhibit also features the poetry of the experimental-Beat-Buddhist poet, Anne Waldemann, who collaborated with Murray in a chapbook/art creation, entitled, "Her Story". One of the poems by Waldemann is as follows:
I saw the
rhythms inside
They were stark
& joyous
& I painted them 
All to see
I think that Murray and Waldemann express interior moods, rhythms that transcend the external boundaries of form, such as that of Murray's Manhattan fish. My dear friend who herself transcends the arbitrary culture-bound gender division of labor forms--she's an engineer/scientist in Silicon Valley-- reminds me that gender and ethnic classifications are merely convenient simplifications that, if subscribed to, conveniently oppress. Reality is a continuum of interesting internal rhythms, rhythms that frustrate generalities, rhythms that add a zest to experience and a resonant path to mutual understanding.


  1. Hi Roy,

    Had a look around on the web for some of her others:

    Bill Alley:


    "Blooming" NYC Subway mosaic

    1. Hi Marnie,
      You found some beautiful images! I like the playfulness of these examples, her vivid colors and sinuous forms. The subway mosaic, being public art, I think could foster peacefulness among the mad-dashing commuters of NYC.

    2. In art, I often find myself gravitating toward images of nature, so perhaps that's why I like the subway mosaic. I like subversion in art, but sometimes find it so sad or so unordered that I cannot afford to look for too long. Most of Elizabeth's art isn't sad, but she is seeking to subvert order. Perhaps that's why I gravitate toward her images which incorporate nature. There's a natural and relaxed optimism there.

    3. Well said, Marnie! I see my aesthetic life in three phases. In youth and as a young adult, I was drawn to nature in art and poetry. Like for many, my intellectual heroes were Thoreau, Emerson, and John Muir. During adulthood, after becoming a therapist, I thought I was drawn to "chaos" and moodiness--but really I think I wanted to work with those very different from me who were suffering. I did a lot of aesthetic research on chaos in art and personality. Now, as I've come into my own, I've returned to a love of nature and order--at least order hidden under the complexity of the surface. Philosophers of the 1700s talked about the contrast between the sublime and the beautiful: the beautiful, being orderly and optimistic, the sublime being awe-striking, overwhelming, angst-producing. I think in art and also in my life there is a return to beauty, but a beauty that is aware of the needs to subvert the established order of things, a beauty well exemplified in Elizabeth's artwork.