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Ethan Murrow on the ‘glorious heyday’ of drawing

September 28, 2016 // by Jaime DeSimone

How does the artist do it ? That's a question we always hear from visitors to MOCA Jacksonville.

Ethan Murrow's Project Atrium wall drawing Plethora has elicited so many of those questions about process, technique, and the ideas behind the artwork.

We asked Murrow to shed some light on the research and craft that go into his drawings.

Ethan Murrow Project Atrium with Microphone
Ethan Murrow answers questions from the audience at the members' preview for his Project Atrium wall drawing Plethora. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

As a self-described storyteller, you create visual stories that teeter between fact and fiction. How do you collect disparate ideas and composite them into one drawing?

I usually begin with a central premise, for example my show in New York City (at  Winston Wachter) revolves around forecasting and weather. I am always looking for topics where I find fact and fiction meshing together in extraordinary and disastrous ways. This is where we see humanity facing conflict and compelling stories starting to develop. Much of my recent work walks right into issues of land, climate, and folklore, so I am always looking out for tidbits that might mesh with these topics. Recently, I came across a story on Wikipedia about the  great auk, an extinct bird that once roamed across the northern Atlantic:

“On the islet of Stac an Armin, St. Kilda, Scotland, in July 1844, the last great auk seen in the British Isles was caught and killed. Three men from St. Kilda caught a single 'garefowl,' noticing its little wings and the large white spot on its head. They tied it up and kept it alive for three days, until a large storm arose. Believing that the auk was a witch and the cause of the storm, they then killed it by beating it with a stick.”

This treasure, which narrates human frailty, brutality, a desire to survive at all costs, and a need to find the funny in the awful to be able to go forward, perfectly represents the kind of moment I try and construct in my work. I feel the need to expose humans for what we are: bumbling, dreaming animals who are capable, in equal parts, of greatness or incompetence. This tale also may or may not be true, which just makes it richer from my point of view because most readers would probably agree, it may not have happened but it easily could have! 

A snippet like this leads me to think about place, character, the quality of the moment itself, and, of course, the ways in which this blip in history has been told and retold. So I begin to look for images that seem relevant to this moment in time. This might be quite literal as in searching for buildings and huts on Scottish Isles or more general as in looking for images of people in moments of pure stress and anxiety. I explore tangents and crossovers, for example, this story makes me think of the Salem witch trials (also fraught with fiction) and other moments in history when suspicion overrides sensibility. We see this happening every day.

Working from a list of notes, I build huge image banks, from historical archives, Flickr, and so on. Some are just for reference; others get used in digital collages. Sometimes, I also shoot my own imagery (as with Plethora) when I have something very specific in mind. Regardless, the process of building a digital collage is like a form of sketching for me, and I will often go through days and days of editing and proposals to myself before beginning a drawing. It takes many stabs and options to get to the final idea. For example, with Plethora, working with a team of photographers, we shot  almost 600 images, of which only a few were used in the end to form the final mock-up.

My analysis and editing revolves around some central goals. A primary one would be formal, as I consider composition, light and shadow, depth, and so on. Then I weigh how these formal choices impact content depending on what the goal of the image might be. Then I project on the wall big and start to sift through the options, mulling over the choices and looking for imagery that makes me stop and pause, either because it has a pleasant awkwardness or beauty to it or because I can't quite explain the effect it has and thus feel the need to make the work so that I can discover the conclusion. (Spoiler alert: that doesn't always work!) Finally, I start to weight the image in relation to the other imagery in the show or in the case of Jacksonville, in relation to space and installation. Throughout all of this, I keep asking myself again and again, “Does the work itself ask questions and are those questions meaningful?” I need the answers to be yes to both of those. This is one of the reasons I am so interested in the realm of fiction and a narrative tipping point in the work. My hope is that by creating scenarios that cause viewers to weigh preceding actions and outcomes, they are beginning the process of story production which leads to judgments, tangents, answers, and questions. Hopefully, this implicates them in the work and builds connections beyond my own intent.

I once had a graduate mentor tell me that all artists are collectors, and I took it literally and thought I must be doing something wrong since I try not to be a pack rat. It took me quite a while to brush away my naiveté and realize that I was also a collector, of things read and seen, of image files, of anecdotes, and so on. My images come from these disparate collections.

I have a particular interest and concern in issues of climate, so stories about the atmosphere and our ability to understand and explain the changes we have caused are always front and center in my mind. Humans are very good at inventing things, telling stories that embellish, cover up, exacerbate, lay claim to, or reveal things about who we are and what we have done.

Much of my recent work has dealt with the extremes of climate and landscape, so this topic grows out of that extended conversation. 

Ethan Murrow Project Atrium Members Preview Guests
"I view the Museum as a mini white opera house and thus was led to building content that tied into issues of performance, drama, and scene," Ethan Murrow says. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.
Ethan Murrow Project Atrium with Visitor
"The sheer challenge of dealing with the figure at this scale is daunting, but I love setting the bar high," Ethan Murrow says. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.
Ethan Murrow Project Atrium Jaime DeSimone and Joel Pangborn
Curator Jaime DeSimone and Joel Pangborn discuss Ethan Murrow's drawing at the members' preview. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

Your first wall drawing was in 2010. What did you learn from that experience?

I was inspired by my friend, the Los Angeles-based artist Joe Biel, who had been doing wall drawings for some time and spoke to me about the challenge of working on site and in relation to space and the public in a different manner. I showed up for one of my exhibitions armed with an image printout that related to the thread of content in the rest of the gallery and very little else. One goal I had from the beginning was to embrace the temporary aspect of the work and keep it simple and cheap, so I started off with ballpoint pens since I figured everyone knows what they feel like and I wanted to build direct intimate connections between audience and the work itself. My hope is that wall drawing asks questions about our need and desire for more permanent objects (I make those, too), and I see myself as complicit in this debate. What I didn't realize when I began was how brutally difficult the process would be. I was making an eight-foot-high depiction of a meteorite with a pen the size of a needle, and when I tipped that pen too far back, the ink fled from the tip. It was agony and served to be another reminder that I am as idiotic as the individuals I often depict. I learned that wall drawing, at least the way in which I approach it, is an endurance sport, a grueling meditation, a testament to work ethic, an ego-filled performance, and a way to engage with viewers directly about the complexity of construction, whether that be method or content.

Ethan Murrow Project Atrium Discusses Drawing with Family
"Plethora comes from these concerns about plenty, access, and ownership, and much of it goes right back to my childhood," Ethan Murrow says. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

I first saw your work in the 2013 deCordova Biennial, where you presented Flotilla, a piece of 120 smaller drawings of watercraft from throughout the history of the United States. It had a completely different feel from what I envision at MOCA Jacksonville. Describe these shifts from expansive open arenas to densely concentrated ones.

Some of this is purely about setting diverse challenges for myself and finding different ways to occupy architecture, interact with viewers, and build content. The  deCordova piece was a discussion of the ideas of comprehensive histories and archives and the impossibility of anything ever achieving that state. It was also constructed to force viewers to stall and search for things on a stairwell that is usually just a passageway into the museum. For Seastead at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston right now, my goal was to construct a single image piece that physically altered the way in which viewers experienced the space they occupied, so issues of depth, perspective, and ambience were big concerns. This tied into the larger discussions of place and climate that were at the core of that work. For Jacksonville, I wanted to explore the idea of the Atrium as a stage, a core space that is viewed from tiered balconies. I view the Museum as a mini white opera house and thus was led to building content that tied into issues of performance, drama, and scene.

At MOCA Jacksonville, you tackle one of your largest figures to date, correct? And it's a self-portrait?

I have often used self-portraiture as a way to blunt my own ego. If you want to lay claim to the construction of an artwork, you have to retain a fairly healthy ego; after all, artists are constantly trying to be loud instigators, questioners, proclaimers, and advocators. That takes some guts and a healthy dose of confidence. This also comes with a whole host of problems, and I am brutally aware of the fact that while I have a lot of things I care about and want to talk about, this does not mean I actually know what the answers are or even what the right questions may be.

This is why, I have often played the central character in my own work yet have attempted to put myself in scenarios that call the protagonist's intent, success, or insight into question. This is a double-edged sword, because I am also very big on the stage and presence often outweighs critique. Celebrity culture is proof of this point, and that is part of my interest in the figure, self-portraiture, and the cult of the individual. Plethora is meant to attack these issues by proclaiming one figure above all and using the superficiality of scale and spectacle to connote importance. I am also intrigued by the opportunity to define a figure in grand scale in this space that can be viewed from so many perspectives and through so many gaps on every floor. The sheer challenge of dealing with the figure at this scale is daunting, but I love setting the bar high.

Ethan Murrow Project Atrium with Stairs
"For Jacksonville, I wanted to explore the idea of the Atrium as a stage, a core space that is viewed from tiered balconies," Ethan Murrow says. Image courtesy of Douglas Eng.

How did growing up on a farm influence your relationship with food?

Well, we had a plethora of food, pun intended. We had a booming garden, abundant meat from our sheep farm, and lots of other neighboring small farms that produced affordable milk, eggs, and so on. It was idyllic and also somewhat unrealistic as a broad agricultural model. Each of these “farms” had extensive support systems like my parents who worked full time as teachers to support the farm, which always lost money, as far as I know.

To actually feed communities we probably need farmers growing at every scale, from the hobby or side project kind of farm I grew up on to the mid-size local endeavors to larger forms of agriculture. The United States has suffered in the past from trying to choose a top down way forward for all (for example, the dust bowl). Each scale and way of working a farm has its own set of problems with regards to economics, ecology, and access.

My own ideologies are tied up in the belief that diversity of scale and approach is vital if our goal is to have everyone eating healthy and eating period. No one way works everywhere and for all things. For example, the recent GMO debates are very confusing because in one sense I firmly believe that GMOs could easily cause a death spiral for diversity on our planet. But I also know that agriculture is all about blending and testing, so I can't completely deny that hybridity and genetics may play a role for us, but at what cost? Basically I'm suspicious of blanket laws, bans, and movements; maybe that makes me a hedger, never willing to commit, but I just don't think there is one answer to any of this.

I also learned a lot as a kid about just how difficult it is to make things work and grow in and on the land. I have great respect for those that work on the land, the sheer fragility of food, and a wariness about the fiction of abundance that many western grocery stores and companies represent. I think this paints the wrong picture of the realities of food for most people, who simply do not ever have this kind of luxury, and I think we would be better off and have more respect for our own tender place on this planet if we all had to build stronger connections to the ways in which our food gets to our plate. Plethora comes from these concerns about plenty, access, and ownership, and much of it goes right back to my childhood. I am deeply grateful to my parents for their somewhat crazy desire to start a sheep farm when neither of them had done that before. It was a blissful place to be a kid, and I am lucky to have experienced it.

Ethan Murrow Project Atrium Speaks at Members Preview
"I learned that wall drawing, at least the way in which I approach it, is an endurance sport, a grueling meditation, a testament to work ethic, an ego-filled performance, and a way to engage with viewers directly about the complexity of construction, whether that be method or content," Ethan Murrow says. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

For you, what is drawing today?

Drawing is in a glorious heyday. And I don't just mean because the art world has given it new recognition as a way of making and thinking that has its own history and language, I mean that it is a true hybrid, utilized and examined in countless fields and forming a core common language that allows us to make and think in the most practical and abstract of ways. Discussions of the drawing in contemporary art are not exclusive or separated from those same discussions in the realm of science, education, and politics (to name a few).

For example, drawing plays a huge role in a discussion of early childhood education and the ways in which young minds engage with and understand the world. It is our ultimate base form of communication and also our core way of dissecting abstract thoughts. It is used across every culture as a way to problem solve, advocate, collect, record, and explain. Drawings' sheer lack of boundaries is part of what makes it so difficult to define and stimulating all at once. My own attempt to corral it comes down to drawing's directness. If you are using an economic and intimate way to talk about the world through some form of mark, you are probably engaged in drawing. 

What is your next project?

Next up for me is the aforementioned show in NYC, a wall drawing at the Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, and then a solo show at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. That last one is an exhibition I am particularly excited about since I will be building a wall drawing in reaction to a piece from their own collection (a mock-up for a Works Progress Administration mural by the artist Helen Lundeberg), so I have a duty to think about history from multiple perspectives, that of the artist, the era she worked in, the institution itself, and the moment we live in now. I will be working with a large group of young actors to build resources for this wall drawing, and thus the project is taking on the element of a film shoot with many layers of production and planning to get to the final stage of actual execution of work in the museum.

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