Cranking up the volumes

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New York painter with a Detroit past Elizabeth Murray hits us with five of her best shots, firing off mega-salvos of oil-on-canvas at Susanne Hilberry Gallery through April 8. "A colorist without inhibitions," in the words of critic Robert Hughes, Murray has devoted the last quarter-century to overpowering viewers with commonplace objects made wild, enormous and, above all, vibrant with colors from the explosive ends of the spectrum. Her extra-large, shaped canvases place things such as tables, coffee cups, chairs and dresser drawers at the center of a storm of cartoonlike figuration that hesitates somewhere between the human and the purely insane.

The paintings in the current show date from 1982, ‘96, ‘97 and ‘98, with Hilberry adding a much older piece, "Benjamin’s Moving Derby" (1971), in the gallery’s back room, for the comparison this quite different (more diffuse and muted) canvas allows with the way Murray works now. But from whichever decade of her output, Murray’s impulsive still lifes on the verge of a nervous breakdown confront viewers like long lost family members – ones who’ve gotten a lot more eccentric and unpredictable since we last saw them in the kitchen or on the porch one summer evening long ago. She takes some commonplace thing and cranks and winds and stretches it into a spectacle – such as the watercolor-drawing, "Yellow Cracked Cup-Up," at Hilberry – that dominates the wall it occupies, making it impossible for us to look anywhere but at this party going on.

Murray’s "cartoony" forms, so central to her vision, don’t let us identify her drawing and pigments with either a particular comic source or a more literal strategy toward such imagery, such as pop art. And they result in a take on visual experience that’s "beyond pat categories of ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’" (Hughes).

When the paintings lie obediently flat on the wall (see the rough-and-tumble "Get Back"), they often break up into multiple, almost interlocking parts, like a kid’s picture puzzle cut out by an all-thumbs craftsman. But they’re sometimes constructed out from the wall, à la 3-D, so that a whole composition seems like it’s "comin’ to getcha" – at Hilberry, the hairiest example of this, "Could Be," comes on like a Little-Shop-of-Horrors escapade.

And then there’s the biggest (10 feet by 11 feet), most dramatic, most hands-down heart-stoppingly Technicolor statement of the whole show: "Rescue." An astronaut’s or deep-sea diver’s helmet? An iMac on drugs? An irrational apparition pulling us, with the force of multiple gravities, to a close encounter with mortality? Who knows – and how great to waver, moment after perspiring moment, between all these impossible possibilities.

Elizabeth Murray isn’t really an ex-Detroiter, but she did teach art for one semester at Wayne State University, back in the wild and woolly days of the Cass Corridor art insurrection. She speaks of that time fondly. And the spirit of her show at Susanne Hilberry, so freely espousing of the painterly and the marvelous, is like a dragonball bouquet sent back to us in gratitude.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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