A delicious way with paint
Abe Murley, who is now 35 years of age, seems equipped with the full range of skills necessary for success as an artist. This, his first major exhibition in Victoria, is as auspicious a beginning as I’ve ever seen.
I met Murley recently at the Humboldt Street Winchester Gallery, which is also a tea room operated by Elizabeth Levinson. He is a Victoria native, quiet and restrained in manner, and when I asked him about his influences and education he didn’t have much to say. From www.abemurley.com I learned that he is a graduate of Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, continued his studies at the Art Students League in New York and pursued his interests in museums and galleries. He takes seriously his place in the tradition of painting.
Murley can draw. His canvases teem with figures, seen close up and crowding the picture plane. Each is rendered with finesse and confidence. Though his overriding attitude is an emotional expressiveness, the sumptuous paint handling is built on an architecture of anatomical correctness. His characters are often bluntly foreshortened, and he can render hands and feet, wrists and elbows convincingly — a rarer thing than you might think.
Whether he is painting winsome young girls or the seasoned glare of a wrinkled old gent, Murley is attuned to the human condition. Not only are the facial expressions engaging, but there is a pervasive attention to all parts of the human form, including the gestures of feet and hands. These people are generally seen close-up, interacting in kitchens, restaurants, tram cars and dance halls.
Much as he focuses on people — his paintings are “basically all biographical,” he admitted — the spaces he creates for them to inhabit are equally interesting. In particular, the rooms are littered with contemporary objects like pop cans and disposable coffee cups, book spines, signs — “anything contemporary,” as he notes. These are narratives of our moment, which in the future may become as historically interesting as Hogarth’s prints or Edward Hopper’s urban scenes.
The artist explained to me that he was concerned with the “other explorations” that take his paintings beyond what has been so well depicted by artists of the past. He has a way of breaking up the space, as if he had tossed down dozens of photos of the same scene in a way that didn’t quite match. His slightly cut-up paintings have a jiggly, jarring up-tempo composition, which keeps the viewer guessing. Murley draws our gaze to the background, and then to the foreground, and from side to side. Each facet is in focus, and as we look from one to the next, an element of time enters our perceptions, creating a sense of immediacy.
Other artists have pictorially taken me to some of these places — Vicky Marshall of Vancouver, Max Bates and Brad Pasutti and Michael Lewis of Victoria come to mind — but they treat their scenes with a distance or an ironic stance. For all his intensity, Murley is calm, sincere and sympathetic to what it is like to be alive today. His purpose is not to judge, but to paint.
And what a delicious way he has with paint! He chooses colours and shapes with a bold hand and puts each in place generously. The dance-hall scene — the width of a king-size bed — is a festival of pattern, of op-art dresses and fishnet stockings and floral prints clashing and colliding in time to the music.
It is with relief that I find Murley is happy to be here. Though he has lived in Los Angeles and travelled in India, he says “Victoria is the place to be.”
Detail from Dinner at Naomi’s, by Abe Murley.