The first thing you notice about Wil is his distinct appearance. He’s tall and slim, wears thickly rimmed black glasses, and his mass of black hair is more often than not teased into psychedelic shag. If you meet him after studio hours he’s dapperly attired in velvet dinner jackets paired with brilliantly patterned shirts, likely with a tumbler of fine whiskey within reach. Murray’s striking appearance could almost be read as a metaphor for his practice: surface characteristics give way to unexpected depth. Elements of painting, collage, weaving, photography, and sculpture are rendered in indulgently brilliant colors and patterns. Photos deny the grandiosity of his work, yet he utilizes this mechanical eye as a tool to hone his craft. His recent forays into double exposure photography have resulted in poetic abstract portrayals of Berlin’s U-Bahn stations. We met on a quiet Friday afternoon at his studio in Berlin’s Funkhaus, a looming GDR-era broadcasting complex. Over the next few hours we tackled his thoughts on the benefits of destabilization, his distinct appearance in relationship to his practice, and recent research into his evocative family history.
Alicia Reuter: Do you see Berlin as a good place for artists?
Wil Murray: The question of Berlin being a good city for artists is getting harder. When I first moved here I was critical of the art and gallery scene, but now that I’ve been here longer I’ve become less critical. The volume of the art scene does mean that I’ve established some great relationships. This is something I was talking to Peter (Wilde) about. I’ve started to view the Berlin art scene as similar to broadcast television. If you buy a television and flip on the switch, you have TV. I always loved that about broadcast television, it was always there, running whether I was paying attention or not, it’s magic, this constant stream of information and it’s the same with the art scene in Berlin. It’s always there, easy to find, if you want it.
Reuter: The first time I saw your work was in a photograph from Maxime Ballesteros. It was sent out as the invitation for a vernissage in your old Weißensee studio. In the photo one of your paintings was hanging in an open window surrounded by the gritty walls of the space. Why did you decide on this kind of very authentic presentation?
Murray: There is this idea that a photograph should be made to best represent the painting, which seems like an impossibility. I tend to work with a photographer for a long time figuring out how to prepare the work for those kinds of white wall gallery shots. We light the work, decide where the shadows are going to go, how it should look, but that’s a strange thing to do when your work is not flat. We’re inventing the painting when we make decisions about where the shadows should fall, and the way Maxime and I discussed photographing these works suggests its opposite. I said to him ‘What if I give you carte blanche on how you photograph this?’ He ran with it, through him, they became living objects.
Reuter: The photos also result in an interesting collaboration between the two of you.
Murray: And that collaboration has influenced my process of photographing my own work in the studio. On the other hand, when the works are photographed in a gallery setting, all the holes on the wall are gone, the setting is perfectly white. In a sense I love the resulting imaginary painting. I go back and participate with that imaginary painting, working with them on my computer. In Berlin I’m confronted with the fact that in a photograph my work is presented differently than in person. I think my work requires the viewer to have both the experience of being seen through a photograph and in person. It’s a slowly building process. When I have a gallerist visit the studio, their reaction is always ‘Oh!’
I recently got an analog camera, so I’m experimenting with multiple exposures. I’ve been taking tons of photos. The thing with the multiple exposures is that you end up composing blind inside the camera, which I really like. There are multiple steps, instead of it just being one click. Going back to analog photography, it feels like the process of printmaking I used to engage in. Taking an image of a physical object, and then turning it into another physical object feels very natural to me, more than digital photography ever has.
Reuter: This is where the subway images are coming from?
Murray: Yes, I’m doing double exposures in U-Bahn stations. I take the photoss, and when I get the prints, it’s surprising what I like. The subway images are a particular kind of image, made up of images of two locations that become one physical object. I don’t want it to become some anachronistic thing, it’s a physical thing.
Reuter: Among art historians the discussion of digital preservation feels ever present. What are your thoughts on the preservation of your works and photographs digitally?
Murray: It’s something I’ve had to consider because of how my work is made. In a sense I get frustrated, because I’ve become such a specialized craftsman and my works ability to remain as it is has become very important to me. The paintings age inevitably, but it’s terrifying for me to thing of digital things aging, because it goes back on an unspoken promise that we were all handed by digital means. Every time I read about the preservation of digital imagery, it feels like sci-fi. The funny thing is that I recently considered burning a piece in Canada. It’s huge, the biggest piece I’ve ever made. It’s warping and when it comes down from where it is, I have nowhere to store it. It’s a pain in the ass, and, to express some regret, I think I made it too early in my career; I wasn’t ready to make such large work, even though I was encouraged to. There is part of me that thinks, "Burn it. Why not?"
Reuter: Would the burning be an act of performance or punishment against the painting for warping?
Murray: (Laughs) I don’t know, I can’t decide. I don’t want it to be a performance, I just want to take it out in the field and burn it. Just leave it there and tell no one. But of course, anything I do to a painting over its lifetime ends up being a gesture. It’s hard to figure out what to do with works. I’m horrified when I hear about painters with storage facilities full of work, which is something I didn’t consider as a painter. Luckily, most of my work is in homes.
Reuter: In a previous interview you discussed your Vancouver studio, which burned in 2003 – does the burning of a work seem like a natural end to you?
Murray: Having 3 years of work burn suggests impermanence in a painting practice. Other practices, such as installation or performance, deal with issues of permanence differently. The fire occurred at a point when everyone was taking .jpeg photos of their work, which changed our interaction with work – now it was online. These all play into my ideas of permanence and impermanence.
Reuter: How did the fire change you?
Murray: In the moment it was awful. It’s an experience so far off from anything you think will happen in your life. I cried my eyes out, but only days later when I thought about what happened. I had a studio in the basement of a convenience store after that, which put the nail in the coffin of my time in Vancouver. I left for Montreal, which was a wonderful experience. The weirdest part is now when I try to describe it, it’s still too hard to process. I mean no one told me what to do when your studio burns down. It made me paranoid about fire, even though it wasn’t even my fault -- it was people making hash oil in the basement. When I look back on it, not to make it poetic, but that was the building. It was like, of course there was someone making hash oil in the basement of that building! That experience redirected what I was doing; it made the decision for me.
Reuter: Can destabilization can be comforting, because there’s always something further to explore?
Murray: Yes, in my experience the most valuable events that happen are the ones that are teaching experiences. Being destabilized in the studio is almost always a clear indicator that something interesting is going to happen. There’s also month long periods where everything is routine, the steps that go into the creation of a painting are familiar. There’s a comfort in that, because always wanting to be destabilized is like a bad drug addiction. In any other context but art, it would be an insane thing to do.
Reuter: It’s interesting that at the end of this series of destabilizations there is something that very much exists, something solid and coherent.
Murray: Sure, this goes back to an old question in abstract work – when is it done? Inevitably, the coherence is bracket by the start and finish, and that is the narrative of the painting, the narrative of the creation of the painting. But the viewer doesn’t experience that narrative, they only experience the end result. A friend sent me a book of Lacan psychoanalysis, and what stuck with me is that the interaction between the psychoanalyst and the patient is not meant to be a typical social interaction. The patient is not supposed to consider that analyst as another person. In reading this, I realized that the experience of creating work for a viewer who will see it 4 months to a year in the future, who I may never meet, who I may never see, there’s a parallel in that. Making paintings is a social act, but it’s different from any other social interaction I have.
Reuter: Can you tell me about the collages with the women you’ve recently created?
Murray: Right, in these works, I took a photo of a drop cloth covering a painting, and worked them into these old magazine images. The women in the images are in traditional Russian dress. Admittedly they do look like burkas, and covering women’s faces always feels problematic, but it was more of a form thing. To be honest though, this also has to do with me dealing with the discomfort of it. It’s not an aggressive act, but it does put me on high alert - this act of throwing drapes over women’s faces.
Reuter: What is the experience like for you, as the artist, to watch people viewing your work?
Murray:This is the strangeness of that social bargain, someone could come up to me, and make an incredibly trite comment about my work, but I think that the larger social interaction we’re having trumps any commentary. In the setting of a gallery there is a sense of protected space.
Reuter: The titles of your exhibitions are often long and knotty (or naughty). For example, your March exhibition at the Sur La Montagne Gallery in Berlin is titled Doctor, Doctor Every Night I Dream Your Investigation My Notion. What is the thought process behind this?
Murray: In a sense it’s a joke. Usually it’s a culmination of things I’m thinking about in preparation for the exhibition. Most of my consumption of art is through novels, poetry, music, and so on. The title of this show stems out of the book on Lacanian psychoanalysis, but the “Doctor, Doctor” aspect is a portion of a joke. Bad jokes have become increasingly strange since I’ve moved to Europe -- both having to explain the jokes and realizing that there are these sorts of jokes in German. The “Investigating My Notion” comes out of this alienated press release format. They often start with something like ‘The artist investigates the notion of …’, so it’s a bit of a poke at that as well. I mean, it sounds like some bizarre sexual term. These titles are constructed piecemeal. This same process goes into the titles of my work. The piece If You Lived Free or Died Here, You’d Be Home or Dead By Now, for example. This is a combination of New Hampshire’s motto and the statement ‘If you lived here you’d be home by now.’ They’re jokey, I think there’s a power behind psychedelia and humor.
Reuter: In a previous interview you mentioned that you need other mediums, specifically music, to think about your work. What mediums are influencing you at the moment?
Murray: Literature, definitely. Music, in a sense, feels less special as times goes on. At one point it was an obsessive drive to find and hear music. Many of my friends are musicians, I still play my guitar at home, but I internalize it differently. At some point it was a way for me to access the world outside, the perpetual newness was both creative and awful. It becomes hard to process, because everyone loves music. I’m really into Montreal choreographer Dana Gingras. I’ve watched live music for years, but watching Dana’s work, her body is the means through which she communicates. It is art; it’s staggering to watch. In a sense, the idea of the work outlasting her is moot. More recently I found myself being fascinated by Marie Brassard’s Berlin performance called Me Talking to Myself in the Future. It was a one-woman piece with two musicians. I’m not so into theater, and seeing Dana and Marie’s work respectively, has opened me up to this sort of intense experience. They’ve pushed me to open myself up to this experience of strangeness.
Reuter: You have a very distinct appearance, I’ve been thinking about the artist’s appearance, and I’m wondering what your physical appearance means to you? You have a very dapper look, but then your hair is also completely teased out, you have these big glasses, it’s very distinct. What if any relationship does this have to your work?
Murray: Previously this is something I did every day, which now seems absurd. Moving to Berlin and being happily in love has certainly changed things. I used to have more of an internal discourse with what it means to be a dandy. One of my upcoming projects is researching the circus that was in my family. I’d like to pin it on that, but it’s not that at all. As I research it, I do like the idea of the artist or performer, having an air of extravagance and mystery. A ‘don’t look behind the curtain’ sort of feeling. As my life goes on and I have more of a private life, I like the idea of going out as Wil Murray, the artist. There’s a degree of separation. It started when I was 14, which shows I’ve always been interested in how the world relates to strangeness. When I was 17 I would wear fishnet stockings. It was interesting to poke at these relationships to the unexpected. I wanted to be provocative.
Reuter: Is your exploration of family in the circus reflected visually in your work?
Murray: Ah, you mean like the stripes? People have made the connection between the red and white stripes in pieces, but others have seen it as the American flag. It depends on the person. I’m also curious – if I do more research, will more circus imagery show up? Internalizing the idea that members of my family worked in the circus, either as a summer job or as a regular thing is bizarre. My larger interest in it is ‘what does it mean for me?’ Is there a connection between my flamboyant appearance and my family’s connection to the circus? I don’t think it’s fruitless to tie those things together. When I was younger, my grandmother, who was one of the performers and ticket takers, she had no issue with my appearance. This is someone from the prairies, from Western Canada, one would generally assume that she should be conservative. But she took no issue with this. I think it’s normal to want some special history, and as an artist it’s a wonderful biographical note.
Upcoming exhibtions include Doctor, Doctor Every Night I Dream Your Investigation My Notion at Sur La Montagne Gallery in Berlin, from the 18th of March, with a vernissage on the 22nd of March (www.surlamontagne.de) and Follow The Winter at Skew Gallery, Calgary, opening May 31 (www.skewgallery.com). In 2012 he will also be participating in exhibitions in Venezuala, Toronto, and Montreal.
To see more of Wil’s work and for information about upcoming exhibitions visit: www.wilmurray.com
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Alicia Reuter is a freelance art historian and critic living and working in Berlin. She is currently working on a project examining the use of contemporary art in advertising. firstname.lastname@example.org