Ethan Murrow draws characters in situations that defy reality and sound judgment in an effort to push his artistry as both fact and fiction
Ethan Murrow has definitely turned a skewed vision into an artistic asset. His large-scale drawings reveal how points of history as well as myths and legends can become interesting intersections for an artist willing to play fast and loose with so-called facts.
Take particular note of Murrow’s high-skill with perspective. His vantage points are vertigo-inducing and seem unbelievable but his ability to render space make every one of them appear quite real.
Trappings of Authority
At first glance, Boston-based artist Ethan Murrow’s large-scale graphite drawings at Winston Wächter appear to be visual reportage documenting daring explorers, intensely focused scientists, and intrepid adventurers. But a closer inspection reveals the absurdity of it all — explorers equipped with sporting gear and household bric-a-brac; an astronomer conducting field research with ropes and whiffle balls; and adventurers on a quest to mine … dust.
But the ridiculousness of Murrow’s drawings is intentional. Articulating such elaborate ruses allows the artist to depict figures in extreme and sometimes humorous situations and capture those moments through video, photography and drawing.
“As an undergraduate, I received pretty traditional studio training — technique-based and formal,” Murrow says. “I didn’t know what I could do until grad school. It was great for me — interdisciplinary — and I started to move between media more, still working primarily in drawing, but in film and writing, too.”
This multimedia approach hasn’t waned. Murrow continues to tease out compositional ideas and concepts by staging elaborate photo shoots and video performances, and then he uses the footage as reference material for his drawings.
The first step of the artist’s process is to evaluate his video footage and photographs on the computer — selecting and editing images, sometimes stitching several together to get at his desired composition. He then projects the image as a silhouette onto a paper surface and traces the outline of the forms.
“I make the admission that the drawings are dependent on still, captured images,” he says. Murrow’s drawings also mimic the look and feel of black-and-white photography and early cinema, with their grainy appearance and gray-scale tonality.
“The connection to photography and film — the photography of the American West, Eadweard Muybridge and his contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin — has kept me working in black and white,” says the artist.
This self-imposed limitation has proven deceptively simple. “Working without color does restrain the factors that I deal with,” Murrow says, “but the process is extensive. It means developing an image of depth and complexity with layering and mark-making alone. I build up very slowly with value and crosshatching across a huge swath of space.”
“Huge” is the correct term; Murrow’s drawings are sometimes as large as 14 feet wide, not to mention his installation works that can fill an entire exhibition hall and need a scissor lift to create.
In the studio, he draws standing up and moves all over the drawing. “It keeps me active, energetic and awake,” he says. “Sitting makes the process stiffer and more constricted. The simple act of standing means there’s more flexibility and I evaluate the piece differently, and it allows me to draw for six to eight hours, as opposed to three or four.”
Murrow is also interested in photography’s ability to freeze and isolate moments that occur in the blink of an eye. “I’m a huge sports fan, and a big part of the way I judge compositions is in the context of the fantasy of sports photography,” says the artist. “There are these impossible gestures that are only apparent in photos.”
All the Angles
To capture such instances in his drawings, Murrow often shoots his reference photographs from a low vantage point, a bird’s eye view, or other unusual angles. “I’m looking for the moment that is just a little unreal — there’s something slightly impossible about it,” he says. “I’ll often see those same kinds of moments on the sports page in the morning and find myself editing toward them in the afternoon.”
Drawings such as Foot Is Still Cramping Up, Results Otherwise Positive bring moments of such physical incredulity to light. The drawing is part of Murrow’s Zero Sum series and the body of work shows the same figure (always covered in a disconcerting number of bandages) in different positions as he hurtles skyward or freefalls through the air — his exact trajectory is never clear.
Despite the looming pain of impact, the figure’s contortions are surprisingly fluid, and he appears poised in midair. “I’m interested in active poses and investigating what we can do with our bodies,” says Murrow. “The beauty and the awkwardness.”
Truth Meet Lie
But what it really comes down to for Murrow is telling stories and exposing the fiction in fact and the fact in fiction. “I’m interested in the impossibility of documentation,” he says. “How it can never be completely fair and objective.”
To illustrate this, Murrow took inspiration for his drawings for Zero Sum from contemporary literature and historical reports of early Victorian-era exploration and the voyages of such adventurers as Ernest Shackleton. His latest works take on the depictions of the American cowboy and the myth of the West.
The accounts of these expeditions and figures have become fairly romanticized and rose-tinted over time, often masking both grim realities and human foibles. Murrow plays with the idea of this kind of cover-up by depicting his own brand of explorers — fictionalized liars and foolhardy adventurers. Cowboys receive similar alterations.
In the Narwhal Hoax series, the drawings “document” pseudo-scientists presumably so interested in making headlines that they fake everything about their expedition—from their credentials and skills to the data they collect.
Murrow’s Pinto Brothers series is the “anti-Wright brothers misadventure,” showing how the First-in-Flight siblings might have acted behind the scenes if their aerial experiments hadn’t gone so well.
The Doomed Explorer drawings show figures on oddball quests, including expeditions to reverse extinction, dig a hole to China, and collect lava. These figures never waver or show a shred of doubt concerning their absurd endeavors.
Lava Collection — Well I Definitely Heard Something shows two figures intently focused on their mission of pinpointing the flow of molten rock underfoot, outfitted in wet suits, swimming goggles, and swim caps. Their scientific instruments are fishing poles, yard hoses, and what looks like the float ball from a toilet tank.
Portraits and Pioneers
The astronomer hunting fallen stars in the Will Be Snaring Meteorites series is puffed up with pride and dignity despite the ludicrousness of her endeavor. Her posturing in the drawing And Stand Proud Amongst the Danger is matched by the cheeky, overly serious title, and it also reminds us of the performative nature of portraiture — how historical portraits of the kind done by Jacques-Louis David or John Singleton Copley can, in a different context, seem as silly as a heroine chasing meteors.
In the portraits in the Dust series, there’s more of the same. The title of the Heber family drawing deems them to be a group of “pioneers,” but the excitement of forging new paths is an illusion.
The family is gathered in front of a pinned-up backdrop, a picture of an inspiring landscape, but their reality is a meager cottage that doesn’t even have a solid floor.
What An Artist Wants
What complicates Murrow’s depiction of his explorers is that he often acts as his own model, implicating himself in all his protagonists’ bungling. On one hand, working from his own image is convenient.
“I am my cheapest model,” he says. “I appreciate the simplicity of that.” But the complicating factor to his self-inclusion is that Murrow admits that his figures allow him to live vicariously.
Murrow says, “I place myself in the work through them. Don’t get me wrong — I would never actually do the things they do. I’m way too stuck in the mud and nervous. But what I’m really trying to do is reckon with the fact that I do want to be there in front of everyone getting the fame and the glory, but I’m also troubled by that wanting.”
But in that wanting, Murrow has discovered that the daring explorer and contemporary artist share more than one might think. “The genuine passion, inherent idiocy, and lack of knowledge of those misguided scientists and explorers — and the constant presence of failure — it all overlaps with what I know about the artistic process,” he says. “Frustrating, but nevertheless necessary for invention.”
And in fearless explorer fashion, Murrow is unfazed by such hurdles: “I enjoy a significant amount of challenge in the process. I like that kind of pressure. I just throw myself all in.”
Ethan Murrow received his B.A. from Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota, and his M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work is in collections worldwide, including that of the Guggenheim Foundation.
He is a faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His work is available at Obsolete Gallery, in Venice Beach, California; Winston Wächter Fine Art, in New York City and Seattle; and La Galerie Particulière, in Paris. For more information, visit his website, Big Paper Airplane.