Jan Murray

Who do you dress up for? Men or women? You might have been asked this question in the 1980s, when querying gender identity and sexual preference was a thing. Jan Murray says, ‘I dress up for myself,’ but how does this work?

Murray’s painting career had just begun in the 1980s. In 1984, she completed a residency in Berlin and, while there, painted a large expressive landscape painting, In Berlin by the Wall (1984), which she named after the Lou Reed song. It features an interpretation of the Nike of Samothrace, a ruined Hellenistic statue, displayed in the Louvre in Paris. The superbly sculpted messenger goddess, a winged victory, alighting triumphantly on the prow of a ship, has no head or arms. Yet with her wings outstretched, she appears to be leaning into a strong sea breeze, her diaphanous chiton rippling across her torso, while a heavier garment, a himation, slips from her hips across her legs. Ironically, Nike and her ship were wrecked in the Aegean Sea, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century. In 1962, Yves Klein famously replicated multiple copies of Nike’s ruined form, colouring her the deep ultramarine, known as International Klein Blue. Although indebted to the savage lure of Klein’s Nike, Murray’s Nike is bleached white and, to her right, two large white classical columns extend the full height of the canvas, appearing to be ‘hinged’ at the top and bottom of the frame.  Finished a whisker before the falling of the Wall, Berlin by the Wall encapsulates the zeitgeist of that moment, as Nike hovers, prescient, beneath a blood-red sky amid the slashed and blackened ruins of East Berlin. In Melbourne, she became a symbol of feminist resistance.

Some of the ideas behind Murray’s current show, ‘Inverso’, have emerged from these potent beginnings— the draped, partly present, partly absent, female body and how women’s clothing appears to have its own life, affecting our interactions with its wearer and surrounding spaces; how desire, female empowerment and western (consumer) culture are ambiguously intertwined; and how, in visual representation, time and space overlap and distil on the painting’s flat surface. Murray’s last show, Redress, was a series of illusionistically painted frontal views of bodices—women’s shirts and jackets, slightly wrinkled and swelling with the invisible bodies that regularly inhabit them.  ‘Inverso’, by contrast, takes us around the back of clothes and clothed bodies and, while still illusionistic, frees us from the potential embarrassment of frontality and the inevitable challenge of identity, allowing us to escape the return of the gaze. ‘Inverso’, meaning opposite or reverse, in Italian, suggests the reorientation of reality that a back-to-front or upside-down world entails.  It is as though Murray has taken each invisible wearer by the shoulders and turned her to face the empty world behind—a space, like the luminous backdrop behind a TV news reader, filled with artificial light and fluorescent colour, diluting as it rises from the lower edge of the frame. Murray ‘hinges’ each item of clothing to the top of the frame and, sometimes, to the bottom, letting the apparent weight of the garment hang in response to gravity’s vertical pull. In this way, she sets up a dynamic interplay between 3D illusion and surface pattern.

Dressing up is not only a sign of identity, for Murray, it is also a pretext for tricking the eye and invoking the body through painted visual effects. Her detailed, meticulous realism has roots in the history of still-life painting, particularly the trompe l’oeil illusionism of the Spanish bodegones. Unlike the metaphorical, Christian symbolism of the Old Masters’ fruit and veg, however, the relation between Murray’s clothes and their wearers is metonymic—the garment stands for the body that wears it.  In a couple of instances, Murray represents part of the body, the backs of arms, covered in fishnet stocking. This not only reinforces the rear point of view, but also shows the body is simultaneously absent and present in at least two ways. There is the illusion that an invisible body is impressing its shape upon the garment, and there is the artist’s body, the perceiving body that is itself always present, manipulating what is seen, but hidden from view. By playing on such ambiguities of embodiment and representation, Murray rattles the assurance that visual perception usually brings, alerting viewers to the elusiveness of reality. The fishnet stocking exacerbates this existential unease, acting as a kind of artificial skin that is neither black nor white nor brown.

Murray pays tribute to the body in Bridget Riley’s Op Art experiments which, in Riley’s words, produce a ‘disorientating physical effect on the eye.’ Like Riley, Murray revels in the dynamic effects of optical phenomena—the pulsating black and white spots of Pierrette’s jacket, the quivering red and white checks of Jan’s dress, the shimmering green and pinkish-grey herringbone strands of wool in Simone’s coat, and the strobing black and white stripes in Andrea’s dress. Also like Riley, Murray manages to ‘organise a field of visual energy which accumulates until it reaches maximum tension.’ In Andrea’s dress and Simone’s coat, the excitement of visual perception is palpable. There is a lot of hard looking and thinking, behind these works, about how to convey what is seen as texture, about how seeing aligns itself with touching and feeling and weighing. Murray pays close attention to the nature of materials and their responsiveness to gravity. She enjoys the challenge of representing the tough texture of Polartec, a relatively new and artificial fibre in Pierrette’s jacket. She demonstrates how the heaviness of Simone’s coat and the thickness of its weave affect how it hangs and folds, and how the crispness of Wendy’s cotton dress causes it to crease and crumple. Indeed, the way Murray conveys the hardness of the metal chain in Simone’s Coat, as well as the illusion of the chain hanging free of the woollen coat, except where it is attached at each end, is a feat of dazzling virtuosity.

In a wry and gentle way, Murray makes the familiarity of everyday clothing strange.  An admirer of Domenico Gnoli’s paintings of quirky, slightly exaggerated details found in the 1970s’ world of haute couture—a hairdo with a perfect part, the knot of a tie, the pleats in a pair of trousers, or the shine on the back of a pair of high-heeled, patent-leather shoes—Murray seizes on the subtle weirdness that representation and visual perception afford. In contrast to Gnoli’s tightly cropped, intimate close-ups, however, Murray’s clothed forms are larger than life size and appear to be hanging free from the sides of the picture frame. Her second iteration of Simone’s Coat is a visual paradox of a particular kind. Unlike the first, the second reveals no sign of the wearer’s body. The bulges have disappeared, the garment has folded in on itself, hanging like a pelt and, suddenly, the image resembles an elephant. There is a name for this visual conundrum: pareidolia. It is the human tendency to see a meaningful image—in this case a beautiful, revered animal, the elephant—in an ambiguous or random visual pattern. In Murray’s painting, pareidolia is not a scary experience; it is rather a surprisingly innocent and amusing revelation.

What is lovely about these works is their empathy and affection. Each garment on display is well known to Murray—one of her own jackets, the coat of a female colleague, her sister’s summer dress and two jackets belonging to a close friend. There is a story behind each garment, which adds to its meaning and augments its appeal. Only after she had asked her if she could paint it, Murray was delighted to learn Simone’s winter coat had been designed in the 1980s by the famous couturier, Jean Paul Gaultier. Indeed, all of the clothes in ‘Inverso’ are linked by the shared pleasure of dressing up, of looking closely at garments to assess their cut and form, and of female friends being around one another in a carefree and unassuming way. There is humour in stealing your sister’s summer dress and representing it as a work of art, or borrowing your colleague’s coat and showing the bulge of her back beneath the fabric, but omitting her hands and legs, not to mention her head.  An environmental theme creeps in, by the back way, you could say. In contrast to some of her previous exhibitions, such as Just Looking, in which Murray represented a series of new, virtually identical, shopping bags as a critique of consumerism and waste, ‘Inverso’ invokes a sustainable alternative—the Slow Fashion economy of the retro, the pre-loved, the up-scaled and re-purposed. When Jan Murray dresses up for herself, in other words, she invites an ever-expanding community of mostly female friends and collaborators, into her amusing, back-to-front, aesthetic world.

Essay from ‘Inverso’ exhibition catalogue

Jan Murray: Inverso
4 – 25 April, 2020
Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related