Emerson Murray’s figurative abstract paintings are great conversation starters. Ask five people to create a story based on one of his works, and you’re likely to end up with five completely different narratives—all of them equally valid.
“I approach [each painting] as a story or a legend, and I sort of boil that down to an emotion and throw that out there,” says Murray, who works with both acrylic and oil paints. “If people pick up on it, that’s cool; if they have their own [interpretation], that’s cool. I just want people to look at it and feel something.”Contributing to the ambiguity of Murray’s work is the absence of faces and other identifying features in his figures. As he observes, “Sometimes it’s even hard to grasp what you’re seeing: are they walking away? Are they coming towards you? Are they moving? Are they dancing? Are they getting ready to kill somebody? Are they crying? Are they laughing? Sometimes the color will help [convey] where I’m coming from, but what the hell is green? That’s different to you than it is to me.”
Murray gets his artistic inspiration from a variety of sources. “I’ll hear a story, read a news article, remember a Greek myth, hear a song or hear a story of two punk rock girls going off and causing trouble, and then I’ll sort of distill that down,” he explains.Working from photographs of live models that he has taken, Murray begins creating his paintings by drawing the figure in chalk and then putting masking tape around the outline. Since he foregoes a paintbrush in favor of a palette knife, a stick or even his bare hands, the masking tape helps him keep the paint from straying outside the lines.
Another way that the artist stays in direct contact with his materials is by mixing his own oil paints from dry pigments that he buys from a shop in San Francisco. By throwing things like sand, dirt and flocking into the mix, he is able to get a wide array of colors and textures unavailable from store-bought paints. “I feel like a mad scientist or something when I have them all in glass jars,” he states. “It’s horribly messy, but really fun.”
Murray, who went to film school rather than art school, takes an emotional approach to painting as opposed to an academic one. “There’s rarely a light source in my paintings, and I don’t concentrate on shadow,” he notes. “I’m concentrating on the juxtaposition between the colors and the shapes, really, and then how that affects emotion.”
Murray’s participation in this year’s Open Studios comes after a hugely successful debut last year. Contributing to the buzz that surrounded his 2014 exhibit was the fact that a week before the event, the death metal band Cretin had released an album whose cover art Murray had created. “Through the whole death metal scene, there were lots of articles and interviews, and people were interested in my art, suddenly, from a really weird perspective,” he recalls with a laugh.
The painter’s 2014 Open Studios exhibit provoked a wide range of reactions. As he recounts, the first customer to view the display bought a $900 painting, and “the second visitor came in and said, ‘Umm… I like nice art,’ and then walked out.” The third viewer made no comment; rather, she simply shook her head and left the building. “It was like the ultimate ups and the ultimate lows!” Murray chuckles. “This year, hopefully it’ll be a little more even-keeled.”
Mixed as those reactions might have been, they were indications that Murray had achieved his goal of provoking strong emotional responses. His display at this year’s Open Studios is likely to do the same.
See more of Emerson’s work at emersonmurray.com.