James Murray: Constructed Sculpture
In the sculpture of James Murray, space, interval, and matter are constructed together with a vigor and finesse that frequently defy expectation. Murray initiates his work through an all-inclusive approach to new and pre-existing materials.
Six City Blocks of 2011 combines richly textured reclaimed timbers, steel-strap bracing, cast iron sleeves, and a taut adjustable turnbuckle to define air shapes, sunken holes, and geometric abstractions. Scaled to 18" x 38" x 76" the work is beefier than Twelve Blocks, a tall chiseled and polished stack of new hemlock and walnut sections. The 71-inch column of blocks holds to a slightly precarious upright position as the viewer rotates the chunks of wood, encouraged by the artist’s dictate to touch and interact with his work. In the more compact lime stone pieces, like Stack of Stones, viewers can turn the stones and feel their heft and sensual surfaces.
The sculptor plays as well with the viewer’s mind in Home Equity, a fixed yet skewed stack of houses, carved in wood and later cast in aluminum. Like his abstract pieces, the simplified house shapes tilt to the point of imbalance while they are held in check by invisible lines of force.
Murray relies on unusual means to forge these coherences. From experience navigating ships as a merchant marine captain, a one hundred-ton master, he intuits trajectory lines through space. In his lifelong work as a sculptor, he manipulates abstract chunks of form or a specific image of a basic house shape as if guiding ships tossed on waves. Objects under his watch never fall out of range but hold to the edge. The stacked stones and wood blocks are drilled to receive an internal metal rod invisible to the viewer who must suspend disbelief in order to approach and reconfigure the piece.
The sculptor also relies on his skills acquired as a contractor evaluating crumbling infrastructures to rebuild them with boldness and refinement. In this context, he works with scale, using his precise contractor’s drawings, and finishes with fine woods and veneers. Keeping the underlying discipline while responding to the eccentricities of both his materials and his internal rhythms, Murray’s sculpture process breaks free. He works spontaneously without preparatory drawings hacking bold surfaces, mitering, joining, welding, and bracing to call on a vast experience with materials and processes. Fissures erupt from natural causes of swollen wood split open or nudged by Murray’s forceful chisel. Murray ties them together with new or weathered bracing while delighting in the mysterious scars and splits.
The work shows an improbable fierceness and recklessness along side an experiential confidence that the piece will hold together, will endure, and according to Murray, will illuminate “principles of order in art—balance, harmony, variety.”
To mine the intersection between the uncertainty of a raw split and the clarity of a fine polish or visual balance, Murray selects new materials or halls in cast offs from man and nature.
Near his studios on the Hudson River and on Martha’s Vineyard, Murray gathers flotsam that he dries for a year or more until it is stabilized. Over that period of time as the material sustains a hold on the artist’s imagination, it becomes ready to be turned into sculpture.
For Murray “materials with a pre-existing life history have a purpose and shape to be reworked as sculpture. I am always on the hunt for sculpture materials, harvesting them as an unban archaeologist.” As in the 6 foot 6 inch high piece BQE (aka Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) road finds, metal scraps, human cast offs are welded, bolted, and altered to form twisted and arresting images.
© 2012 Victoria Thorson, Ph.D. Art Historian and Writer,