I visited Melissa Murray at her studio in Bushwick after the rush of Open Studios. Melissa graduated from the University of Texas in 2012. Our time in Austin barely over-lapped and she now lives and works in Brooklyn. Murray’s work can be playful and irreverent. One of her wearable works is composed of two headless My Little Ponies burnt together bottoms-up and tails out; a decorative fleur de lis of symmetrical fountains of shiny, brightly-colored, fake hair. These are on equal footing with Murray’s other works, which are incredibly earnest. American Snakeskin (2014) is a painting on a six-foot long, skinny handmade stretcher that vulnerably bows inward suggesting a slight waist. It’s shown with the long sheet of bubble-wrap that was used to print the texture onto its surface. The bubble-wrap, displayed in front of the painting, is still caked with paint as if it has just been peeled away. Murray schooled me on these, and her other hyper processed-based paintings, and various object-based installations created from the mass of found material filling up her studio.
There’s so much going on in this space. I see a salt rock lamp, wrinkled velvet, sunglasses with frog-hand earpieces, parts of old shoes and toys, and piles of broken CD’s. There’s also all that storage out-of-reach and above our heads.
Yeah all my good work is up there [Laughs].
What’s the most important thing you keep around you in the studio? What are you looking at right now?
Lately reading has been especially important for my process—even more than looking at other visual art. For the past year I keep returning to Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School and Testo Junkie by Beatriz Preciado. Both are radical texts that explore bold ways of living. They turn a key for me with rebellious funky free, queer people cutting up the world, cutting up their bodies, and being a diaper for the day’s residuals. Transgression functions as a creative tool for me and as an end point in my process. Demolishing what’s a “good painting” and recovering the shrapnel. The work comes from a lot of moments in the studio with this sort of neurosis—of re-working and re-stretching along with trashing, breaking, splurging, seducing, and cleansing material. The bravery and that sort of method are backed by those inspirations, and reading is a huge part of that. I’m currently working on an homage to Kathy Acker—an installation to blow up her dream map for a large space—manipulating the sequence so the text and drawings can be entered like a painting, i.e. through a relation to the body and to seeing.
Are you writing or using text in any of your works now?
I’m composing a textual component to be read by Siri to accompany this assemblage. In my mind, this piece is definitely a sort of cyborg. There’s a rinky-dink watering can from a thrift store paired with a vibrator holder that I purchased from a BDSM yard sale, and both sit atop a studio bucket and blanket. The form could be androgynous—with an element of Mother Nature, a phallic-looking spout, and squirting.
Mostly, these objects just went together. The holder fit perfectly into the handle of the watering can. And this particular holder is made of clear plastic so it looks like a representation of water. There’s a tension between this fluid material and its container. To me containers are like contexts. They both mold and define content through their framing. Here, I’m confusing the relationship so it’s no longer clear what’s controlling what.
The lightness feels narrative to me—like a dream. I don’t want it to feel too much like a prop, but I definitely think there’s something childish about it—play fantasy. It’s a new territory I’ve been getting into.Fantasy and dreams are great source material because you’re collaborating with your subconscious. I wouldn’t say that I have directly created anything based on my dreams, but I’m looking for this certain fluidity in my work that relates to that level of processing.
You’re using a lot of abject found and trash materials. Does this relate to your reading of Acker?
No, but abjection is kind of funny. It makes me think of ugliness, an attraction to ugliness, or an attractive ugliness. I definitely relate to that, but more in a process way. I have a hoarder’s mentality. For so long, I’ve been collecting so many things for reasons that I can’t put into words. I don’t feel like my final products are ugly, but maybe some people think they are. Mostly I see the trash materials I find and use as unique, and energized in a certain way by the action that’s happened to them and the life they’ve had on the street.
More than abjection, works like the white stretcher is where i left you (2014) are more built up in a residue of memory. This was my ex-girlfriend’s blanket from her childhood. I was using it as a comforter, and then I brought it into the studio. It has emotional value to me so cutting it open was a sacrifice. I want the viewer to feel that, and I thought about adding writing like a Tracey Emin quilt. Instead, I’ve softly rubbed in a thin layer of white paint onto everything. I’ve just touched the surface of it barely with a brush. I don’t know if this is the final action.
It’s funny because when I found the blanket in her closet, I was like, “Really?” It’s such a ridiculous object. It’s not even real tie-dye, it’s printed. It’s wannabe tie-dye, and it’s not even good printed tie-dye. It just has this awkward low-fidelity quality. It’s cheesy like doodling your name and tracing around it until it fills the page. I guess that’s sort of abject.
But when I cut into that comforter, I took out the batting or lining (that cottony, in-between layer). I discovered that over the years the color from the printed, outer fabric had come off onto the batting inside and made this faded rainbow stain. Originally, it was white batting so it took years to come to this specific state, but it just happened. And it’s charged because of that.
It’s a similar kind of attraction I have to the crushed cans and CDs I collect from the street. The ones I usually gather are pretty messed up so they’ve had this life. Even though they’re quick for me to just pick up, it actually took a long time for them to come to look like that.
In opposition to these works that exhibit a sort of passive accretion, a lot of your materials look violently slashed and flayed. Are they deconstructive?
Its not just about violence and aggression, but action. In school, I made a series of installations playing on simple cause and effect processes. There’s a performative element in all of my work that relates to moments where I want to make the process more obvious and explicit. I want the pieces to be put into a more direct relationship with the viewer’s body. When you see that kind of rip, its very visceral. So hopefully they can feel the action—the cutting, and the peeling.
Some pieces only use objects. But many works directly quote the means of traditional painting and play with that—with a lot of exposed stretcher bars, painting on wall-bound objects (like the pillows), or stretching unusual objects for your paintings’ surfaces. How are you playing with theory in these?
I feel like that line can be a little tired on it’s own, but at the same time I am also obsessed with painting. But really my thought process was never limited to painting so I never felt like there was a line to cross in the first place. It’s kind of like that moment when you are reading a book and you realize that you can skip ahead—that nothing is stopping you and you don’t have to read that chapter. Sometimes I’m OCD and I have to read everything all the way through, but sometimes I can skip ahead and realize that things can change.
This reminds me of what I love about Mike Kelley. He made some huge, theatrical installations that are touching on so much, but in a really, direct and simple way. There’s nothing forced—it’s just air fresheners spraying old stuffed animals (Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991-1999); it’s Beyonce and this weird song. That’s it, and so much more. It’s really brave.
Your wearables seem to operate like that, and highlight that sort of directness.
Yeah, they’re sort of intuitive one-offs, “bling” objects on a chain. But there’s something exciting about the necklaces in that they’re potentially going to travel on a body and create a dialogue with the environment and the people around them instead of being stuck in a gallery or unseen in the studio. There was something freeing about making them originally, because they could exist just purely as fashion objects.
And on real bodies and real, narrative people, they mix with the traits of the wearer.
All of the necklaces I’m making are really gaudy and they’re pretty hard to miss. If you are wearing one, you’re really obviously wearing one. So in that sense, they can change what a person is feeling or thinking about. There is something about how costume can initiate a character. My ideal wearer is my friend, Beau. When he would wear the necklaces, he’d kind of throw them around, make outfits around them, and send me photos of them. They activated his energy—made him look at the world and think, “Hey, this necklace would look really good on that dirty payphone!” That’s what’s exciting to me—it’s not necessarily that deep, but its just playful and cool to see that the work can be fun and activated—and collaborative.