Looking at Art: Elizabeth Murray's Terrifying Terrain

Originally published in Art News, May 1998


“I say it's Duck Season, and I say, Fire!” Who could forget the eagerness with which Daffy Duck issues this ill-fated command? What follows, of course, is a shotgun blast, and—when the smoke clears—a substantial reconfiguration of Daffy's physiognomy. The exuberant violence of cartoons like this one, Chuck Jones' 1951 “Rabbit Fire,” puts us in territory not very far from Elizabeth Murray's Terrifying Terrain . What is that prominent void in the painting's center if not a shotgun hole? Around it, fractured slabs or shards flap heavily in the aftermath of some earlier explosion. A curvilinear puddle oozes amid the wreckage. There's even a meandering, tangled cord, the kind Wile E. Coyote might have attached to one of his mail-order detonators.

From an art-historical point of view, it's easy to see how a picture like Terrifying Terrain recalls the fractured planar space of Cubism, or the painted reliefs of Frank Stella. And yet its clean, plump contours also irresistibly suggest the graphic world of animators like Jones. In a cartoon universe, nothing holds still. Nor does the rambunctious, exclamatory shape of Terrifying Terrain . Looking at it, we experience a narrative, as well as a physical, excitement: we know what will happen next. The fragments will spring out from the wall and reassemble themselves, shaking off whatever disasters they have endured with a sheepish look or a wisecrack.

Instant regeneration is central to cartooning, partly because the pace of action can't let up, but also because the cartoon world has an implicit tenderness, a quality Murray 's painting shares. When her shapes taper to a point, they go harmlessly limp, as “child-safe” as a pizza slice. Furthermore, these flopping shapes all lean toward the center of the painting, as if they were taking part in a whispered conversation.

But for all its animated liveliness, the painting as a whole never does snap back into an intelligible shape. The clunky blue-green slabs don't fit together. The motifs painted over them—the puddle, cord, and twigs—don't tell any conceivable story. Out first response to this disappointment might be to change our viewing behavior. Instead of ogling the painting with cartoon eyes, we hastily don our modernist spectacles, savoring the formal contrasts and nuances that Terrifying Terrain offers.

And there are plenty of these, beginning with the contrast between a physical structure almost a foot deep (from the side, Terrifying Terrain looks like a model for a Frank Gehry museum) and the painted forms that sprawl across it. There are contrasts between jagged forms and undulant ones; between cool oceanic colors and molten reds; between easy-to-read shapes and the painting's slow, heavily worked surface. And there's my favorite formal subtlety, which is lost in reproduction: the way Terrifying Terrain's tilted overlapping parts reflect light differently, so that one after another flashes with glare as the viewer moves.

In the end, though, Terrifying Terrain is not simply an abstract painting. It is too relentlessly allusive to be seen on traditional formalist terms. It requires a different kind of puzzling out, a way of looking that picks up scattered visual hints and savors the evocation of multiple possibilities. Viewed this way, Terrifying Terrain reveals its flip side, an underlying melancholy. After all, despite the cartoonish vernacular, we are dealing here with something conspicuously broken, spilled, tangled. The painting's mood is part “Loony Tunes,” but also part blues, as in the aging Bob Dylan's raspy lament “Everything is Broken:”

Broken bottles, broken plates

Broken switches, broken gates

Broken dishes, broken parts,

Streets are filled with broken hearts…

If there is a heart in this painting, it is melted rather than broken. But once we see Murray 's crimson puddle as a fractured, melted Valentine, we can also begin to see other interpretive options, all of them cartoony and whimsical—but in a minor key.

Several of these options are anatomical. With its oxygenated reds and anaerobic blue-greens, Terrifying Terrain might be an interior view of the human body—a body composed of dark, blocky parts connected by long, looping arteries. The small twigs around which the veins tangle would then represent disjointed bones. Certainly the body's interior is “terrifying terrain.” And the terrain of this body is more unsettling for being damaged. With its shrapnel hole, its sluggish oleaginous surfaces (no cartoon cleanliness here) and veins as slack as old shoelaces, this is no childish body but an aged one, splayed across the gallery wall like a torn and rumpled poncho.

Along with age, Murray 's painting evokes other bodily associations: both the interior breakage of menstruation, and the Christian tradition that makes a broken suffering body the object of religious meditation. For a young woman or for a believer, each of these is also a kind of terrifying terrain, fraught with anxiety and the promise of renewal.

For an artist, the hole in the painting might recall a familiar sight: the rounded thumb hole of a palette. This palette is evidently a shattered one, with a pool of red paint sliding precipitously across it. Why? Perhaps because the painterly tradition, at the tag end of the 20 th century, is so often thought to be moribund. For a painter like Murray , who continues to work in this allegedly shattered tradition, the studio is another “terrifying terrain.”

Murray herself has said that the painting started as a memory of a hiking trip in Montana , and that the red puddle began its life as a dress stretched across shifting, precarious rocks. This doesn't clarify the imagery for me, but I wouldn't want to try to prove Murray 's explanation somehow wrong. Nor can I prove that any of the former possibilities are in any way “true.” None fits perfectly. It might be this very incompleteness that the hole in the painting symbolizes. Call it the missing puzzle piece that keeps the puzzle puzzling. Murray 's deliberate ambiguity chides the Daffy Duck in us, the voice that wants to rashly declare the painting's subject.

Her ambiguity also accords with the painting's evocations of melancholy, loss, and age. Emotionally, these are adult concerns, solemn and elegiac. All are very far from the playground mayhem that Terrifying Terrain summons up when we first approach it. Such a contrast could easily be ironic; here it is not. And this is one of the remarkable things about Murray 's art. Terrifying Terrain is both brooding and childishly exciting; difficult and ecstatic. Murray has reconfigured cartoon language for adult eyes, enriching it without losing its gymnastic exuberance. And the viewer is apt to be reconfigured too. Standing in front of Terrifying Terrain , one subjects onself to a double-barreled shotgun blast (melancholy in one barrel; adrenaline in the other). There's no sound and no smoke, but we emerge both delighted and chastened. I can't imagine a better way to spend a Saturday morning.