Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick 

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Melissa Murray's exhibition What The Birds Saw opens on April 15 (reception 6-9pm) at Causey Contemporary (92 Wythe Avenue) and continues through May 15.

You use many different styles of drawing within each piece; is there one style with which you're more comfortable?
I really enjoy texture and doing the main character in a piece first. I really labor over it and I think that I need to almost have a break because I get caught up in the tedious little parts. I was trained as a painter, so I really like texture and volume.

You start most pieces with a central animal character, but how do you pick that main figure?
I find the main character in a piece through something happening in my life or something happening in the world, and I get the general gist of the metaphor I'd like to recreate in the drawing. I find animals really interesting to use because they're not so personal as a human figure. Especially with wild animals that we really don't know so much, it's easier to use their physical attributes and their characteristics as a metaphor. So I'll figure out the feeling and sometimes even the name of the drawing first and then kind of fill in the blanks.

When you choose to draw an animal do you consider its art historical symbolism?
Definitely more its primal symbolism, what we all view it as: a carnivore, a big animal or a small animal. Not so much where they stand in art historical contexts and more just your gut understanding of what we think that animal exists as. I find it a lot easier to convey a thought using an animal than an inanimate object or a human.

Many of your works evoke paintings and, at least from a distance, collage; is there another medium you're interested in exploring or are you committed to drawing?
I'm pretty committed to drawing right now. I moved into this space to work out of my home, so I stopped painting for a while until I could get a studio where it wasn't so toxic, and I just fell in love with drawing. I feel like I have more control whereas painting was more restrictive in a way. I want to stick with drawing for a while, but for my next body of work I'm interested in getting into flat acrylic color fields, and more color, and less graphite. I love using pencil and graphite. I love the feel of it and I love working with it, but I think I might explore and open up new possibilities using acrylic.

In addition to blending animals, architecture, man-made objects and landscapes, you often mix colorful, black and white, and single-tone monochrome figures in your work; what effect are you trying to create through this juxtaposition of color palettes?
I'm really into creating different times in a single image, so I find that by using monochrome and line work it can create a different time within the environment. I like the idea of drawings within drawings and creating different worlds within a single image.

Though they're incredibly detailed, there's also a sense of chance and unpredictability in your drawings; how carefully do you plan a piece before starting to work on it?
Well, about halfway through the previous drawing I start thinking about what I'm going to do. I don't do any sketches, I don't really prepare more than mentally, because I really like to embrace the randomness and I feel like the subject matter is very chaotic so the randomness lends itself well to chaos.

Do you work from photographs?
I do, yes. I work from photographs. I take my own photographs, I research in books and on the internet. I start basically with a main character, like in this piece a bison. The main image kind of sets the stage for the rest of the drawing. It is random, a lot of stream-of-conscience. I don't do much preparing, except for getting images to be more precise about what I'm going to do.

Slideshow
Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick
Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick

Inside the Artist's Studio: Melissa Murray in Bushwick

By Lou Gruber

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And you only work on one drawing at a time?
Yeah. I find it really difficult to work on more than one because I like to put everything into it. And sometimes I'll be working on a drawing and start thinking about a new drawing and end up combining the two of them.

Do you ever come back to a work and alter it?
Very rarely. When it's done I just feel like it's done, like it exists on its own and I can't get back into it.

Your work is influenced by psychoanalysis and the idea that animals symbolize the instincts and impulses that we as humans tend to suppress; what made you decide to pursue these themes in your work?
I'm interested in symbolism and psychoanalysis because it's a way for me personally to accept things and to move through difficult situations. But, to take it a step further, I like to try to recreate dreams. I'm really interested in understanding, documenting dreams and creating a space that could perhaps exist in a dream and not necessarily something that your physical body could walk into. That's why lines don't meet up, or the sky doesn't continue, or the ceiling doesn't continue. It's a space that's ever changing. I like that idea of time moving in a single image. Like how you move through a dream and sometimes end up somewhere without knowing how you got there. I like to do that with a line.

Some of your earlier drawings feature human figures; was there a specific point in your development when you decided to shift towards animals?
Well I was trained as a figurative painter and was very interested in figurative painting, but it got to a point where it was too familiar and as the viewer you relate it too much to your life. We know too much about them. I find a broader metaphor by not using humans. But I still really like and hold onto the training that I have in the manipulation of volume and creating flesh or skin.

The animals you draw are at once very beautifully and exhaustively rendered, and also somewhat scary; is that a reaction you're trying to elicit or does it just happen because of the animals you choose?
I'm absolutely interested in that conflict and contrast. I feel like it's a good representation of life; in order to know what it is to be happy you need to know what it is to suffer. In life there's always that contradiction, so I like putting that in my work, to recreate that. I look at the animals as emotions or situations.

Are there any artworks, artists or exhibitions that have played a really crucial role in your development?
When I first started painting I was really into figurative painting and I love artists who can create skin and flesh and make that the content of the painting, like Jenny Saville or Lucian Freud will just have this massive volume of skin. And I'm still inspired by their work. I really like artists who have a strong narrative sense with kind of dark undertones like Walton Ford or Dana Schutz, these artists who tell a story in a single image.

There clearly are stories in your work, but you kind of conceal or distort them by making them impenetrable, like you're almost teasing the viewer with hints of story.
I like them to live on their own, for the person who's looking at them to take it in, to leave room for them to create their own story. I like pushing it to the moment when it's not quite clear and there's no correct interpretation. I want my work to move and to exist for a while, to exist in time and stay with you so you can try to understand and make it personal.

Do you knowingly try to keep the viewer off-balance with all the discontinuities and surprises in your work?
They're all stream-of-consciousness drawings, and as I go along with them, if I hit a wall where I think that it might be too safe or too understood or too simple I'll take another road. It's a constant bouncing back and forth with how to make it more complex or more interesting.

Are there any other essential influences in your work?
I'm really interested in music when I do my drawings. Music is probably more important to me than art, in my life; and I'm really interested in trying to recreate a song in a drawing. And when you just kind of become that song, and live through it and move through it, it changes and your physical perspective changes, and I really like to recreate that in art, that sense of time, which would probably be the amount of time a viewer spends with a piece taking it in. I can get really into an album while I'm working, and sometimes if I hear an album I'll remember a drawing. There's something about a beat in music that you can relate to so physically because everything we do is repetition. A lot of repetition in my work comes from that same place, and I'll get really obsessive with grid work.

Your wild animals often inhabit very strict yet broken architectural spaces; what interests you in that contrast between wilderness and civilization?
I like putting architecture in my work and juxtaposing it with the animals, it reminds me of the city. We're constantly bombarded with stone and brick and no grass and no fresh air, and we're just these bodies moving through it. It's really inspirational to me, especially the old buildings and the craftsmanship that goes into creating a building. I'm constantly inspired by this bizarre nature which we choose to live in that's stressful and unhealthy yet we all love it.

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