A de­li­cious way with paint

Times Colonist - - Arts - ROBERT AMOS rober­ta­mos@telus.net

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.

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