Ethan Murrow: Tales of Desire
By Claire Fenton
This July, Boston-based artist Ethan Murrow took his photorealistic drawings to the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. He created a larger-than-life figure caught after the act of indulgence for his “Project Atrium” exhibition “Plethora,” which opened on July 16 and runs through October 30.
“Plethora” is an absurd fête that questions the role of consumption as the character delves into his insatiable desires. As the figure leans over piles of fresh food, a large pot obscures his face. This nonsensical tableau illustrates how the artist combines found and invented imagery to form an unexpected scene saturated with humor and irony. Inspired by still-life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, the site-specific wall drawing in MOCA’s Atrium Gallery exposes a moment of excess, gluttony and privilege.
The public was invited to observe the drawing process from July 5 to 15, as Murrow and four assistants built up the image with a variety of mark-making techniques. When viewed from a distance, the scene appears to be a black-and-white photograph. Upon close inspection, however, their forms fuse into abstract marks. Throughout the process, the artist and assistants stepped back from the wall to study the lines, their weight and the image’s progress.
In “Plethora,” the mounds of fresh food refer to the gardens and landscapes of North Florida. A lavish spread of maize, squash, fish, melons, cabbage, honey and more grossly outweighs the need of one man, who indulges in it anyway. “Plethora” presents the luxury of a food supply yet probes at the prevalent lack of access to fresh groceries throughout the United States.
Murrow is a storyteller, whose visual tales teeter between fact and fiction. To create a work, he collects disparate ideas or source imagery before compositing them into a single image. His interest in film and photography further steers the direction of a drawing. He injects a “narrative tipping point” into each work-a moment immediately before a shift in the story, cueing the viewer to a change in plot.
A rope and pot establish the “narrative tipping point” in “Plethora.” The rope extends the narrative beyond the depicted scene but also reads as one of Murrow’s visual cues. Meticulously drawn as if it attaches to the gallery’s beam, the rope is slightly off-center and suggests a faint motion. Much like a film still, the rope and pot connect the figure to an event beyond the drawn image, leaving the viewer to make sense of the overall narrative.
Murrow grew up on a small farm in Marlboro, Vt., where his family raised animals and harvested vegetables. Now he is an urbanite dependent on local markets and chain supermarkets to feed his family. The artist recognizes the illusion of his childhood experience on the family farm.
“Our farm never made any money; my parents owned their own land, a privileged form of farming,” he said. “I’m aware that I am nostalgic for this falsehood of agriculture. I had a completely glossy experience. My parents had other jobs. If the farm lost money one year, we wouldn’t lose the farm. This is part of my interest-things that we glorify are often deeply conflicted and problematic. I glorify the farm, but I only know one romantic moment of it.”
Although concealed by the pot, the artist says he is the lead character in “Plethora.” His inclusion nods to his idyllic upbringing and is a tongue-in-cheek statement about the tradition of commissioned portraits to symbolize one’s status.
As part of his process, Murrow staged a photo shoot with a lavish table setting of food. In the resulting 600 images, the artist gorges on various foods and spirits. He then splices together different parts of the pictures in a mockup for the in situ wall drawing. As the concept evolved, however, the inclusion of the pot obscures the protagonist’s identity-now it physically and visually shields him from ridicule about his voracious appetite.
Murrow earned his bachelor’s degree from Carleton College and his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Recent solo shows of drawings, video and sculpture include La Galerie Particulière in Paris and Brussels, Slete Gallery in Culver City, Calif., Winston Wachter Fine Art in New York City and Seattle, and the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston, W.V.
He was recently commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston to build a two-story wall drawing for the Sandra and Gerald Fineberg Art Wall in the museum’s lobby. Murrow also participated as artist-in-residence at Facebook, was a fellow at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ireland, received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Drawing, and was included in the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum’s Biennial with a three-story wall drawing. A monograph of Murrow’s work was released in fall 2015. The artist and his wife, Vita Weinstein Murrow, published their children’s book The Whale in April 2016. Murrow is a professor at the Museum School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“Plethora” is on view through October 30, 2016. The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is located at 333 North Laura St., Jacksonville, Fla. 32202 | www.mocajacksonville.unf.edu.
Claire Fenton is an arts writer based in Jacksonville, Fla.