02.11 – 16.12.2017
Over the last few years, the abstract paintings of John Murray have become regular fixtures at art fairs, assured of consistant sales to patrons for whom his boldly coloured geometric forms provide pleasant, not too challenging aesthetic comfort. Murray’s latest show at WHATIFTHEWORLD’s Johannesburg space continues in the abstract vein to which he has become increasingly comfortable working in.
Murray has spoken about his process as one of “action and reaction” and his new show’s title, ‘Aftermath’, reflects this. Exploring the tensions between what might be planned and what ends up on the canvas – as well as the dichotomies of figurative and abstract depiction – what seems from a distance to be perhaps a jumbled up face with eyes and lips and head is upon closer examination a loose juxtaposition of geometric panels, daubs and groundwork which opens itself up to broad contemplation of ideas around tension and anxieties, and searching for space within the context of the society beyond the frame.
Yes, these are distinctly John Murray paintings, but there seems to be less rigidity, less formal division and more interaction between the different elements of the canvases than in some of his previous work. While recognisable geometric forms are peppered throughout the work and repeat across the surface, there’s a certain freedom about their placement and an addition of some singular minded paintwork that gives works such as Contour and Perish a welcome energy that’s both playful and urgent. Form and surface intermingle and the colour palette is more subdued though still enlisted in service to the overall aesthetic.
A squiggle of brown s-shapes in the bottom left of Headquarters seems at first to be an out-of-place misfire but if you think of the painting as an abstraction of a building then the squiggles seem to be a perfect representation of a revolving entrance gate; or maybe that’s too literal an interpretation and they are ultimately just brown squiggles. Overthinking and rethinking are as much part of the tension arising out of Murray’s work as the battle between his triangles and his surface painting. Everywhere there is plenty of evidence of the painter as labourer – scrapings, build-ups of paint, panels of flatter forms – all point to the physical exertion involved in producing the work and the constant battle between the idea and it’s execution – ever changing, ever susceptible to second-guesses and doubt – the aftermath being both the product and a product of the process.
Although it’s perfectly possible to read the work within the context of South Africa and Murray’s role as a painter within his particular society at this particular moment in time – one filled with uncertainty and constant re-evaluation of where we are going and what we once believed – it’s not a necessary prerequisite for an appreciation. The movement within the canvases and the evident struggle between the shapes and the surface is one that could be extrapolated to reflect the movements and struggles of many societies in the world today. Likewise the resulting overall pictures can be seen as full of end-of-days foreboding or celebratory-hallelujah rejoicing in the chaos at the heart of all creative endeavours. Paradoxically, by offering not much more than forms and brushstrokes which appeal to the eyes of people with money in their pockets and spaces on their walls, Murray’s work creates plenty of room for contemplation of everything from paint to politics and psychology – giving him the benefit of many doubts.
Abstraction is always about the reaction more than anything else and on that level Murray’s paintings certainly can’t be faulted. They may not provoke the most violent of reactions either way but then again it’s hard to see that that would be the intention. In an increasingly polarised world, Murray’s painting is decidedly non-confrontational but that’s not to say it’s not without thought and effort and intricacies on its own terms.
As a step within the artist’s abstract work ‘Aftermath’ certainly represents some new departures, forms and methods of confronting the tyrannies of a blank canvas even if within the context of South African painting and the broader social issues of its moment of creation it may not have too much new to offer. One man’s abstract painterly struggles between intuition and reason may provide plenty of material for a career, but they don’t necessarily translate into much more than that. Or do they? Perhaps in this age of ever-doubting, ambivalent moral and social footholds – Murray’s struggles, which leave no doubt that “there’s something happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear” – is just what the art doctors ordered.