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Moments of Possibility – An Interview with Dave Murray


In September, I attended an exhibit at the LVL3 Gallery titled This is the Same as That, a joint exhibit between New York artist Letha Wilson and Chicago artist Dave Murray. The show dealt with examining the real and the unreal, the physical and the imagined. The exhibit included photography, sculpture, and installation that dealt with the duality of materiality and material limitations.

So in October, over the din of silverware scrapes and the clank of beers at the Exchequer Pub (a supposed SAIC graduate student spot), I was finally was able to interview Dave Murray between his trips from North and South East Asia stopping in Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing, and his next trip to India and the Middle East including stops in Mumbai, New Delhi, Kuwait, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. As the Assistant Director of International Admissions at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dave’s job involves grand travels. In a few weeks he will be traveling to Portugal and Turkey.

Our conversation varied from kindergarten to the Tower of Babel, and in between we had some great discussion about art.

Amanda Mead: So where are you from?

Dave Murray: I grew up in upstate New York, just outside of Albany. Very similar to Wisconsin, actually. I love Milwaukee because it feels exactly like the place where I grew up.

AM: How did you get started in your art endeavors?

"Lemon", Dave Murray, 2011

DM: How did I get started. Well, when I was an undergrad, I went to Tufts University, and they have a 5 year dual program with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. , I probably took 6 art classes, freshman to sophomore year. Which might have been too many for a non-arts major. That’s when I met someone who was like “oh you must be in this program too because I see you at the art school all the time but I know you’re a Tufts student”. And I had no idea this program existed, so I actually transferred into the 5-year dual program and wound up doing childhood development degree at Tufts, and then mostly drawing and painting at the Museum School.

AM: So you went in initially for childhood development, psychology?

DM: Yup. And I stayed to play with paint. So I went to college for five years, and all I did was hang out with kids and paint.

AM: And then you chose the Chicago Art Institute for graduate school?

DM: I did. I worked for a number of years, for four years, after graduation. I taught kindergarten, it was my first job, which was amazing. Because everyday you get to tell something to a person who has never heard it before, and when you watch their universe expand they get so excited. So that was really fun but it was really tiring, as a 23 year old, to wake up at five in the morning, run around and chase kids and try to focus 25 little minds for six hours, and then you come home at five o’clock, and then you have to lesson plan- then you just want to sleep.

"Lime", Dave Murray, 2011

AM: How do you feel in the Chicago art scene? Was LVL3 your first show? Is there any advantage being connected to the Art Institute?

DM: I feel like the Art Institute is such a central fixture in the Chicago art scene. And, the students at SAIC are really motivated. So, a lot of folks like Vincent Uribe and Alison Kilberg who run LVL3, are undergraduate students. They rent an apartment that is maybe a little bigger than they need, convince their housemates to build white walls around the huge central living space turn it into a gallery and they kind of live around the periphery.

AM: I didn’t know that is how it works. That’s very cool.

DM: Yeah. So when I moved to Chicago, I mean growing up in New York and Boston I thought I knew what a thriving art scene was but when I moved here – the apartment gallery thing was really astounding. These young curators, or I guess there were some more established folks, but they really have a passion to get art out there, they put a lot of energy into it.

AM: Literal art is life – your living room is the gallery. I did not know that about LVL3.
So how did you meet Letha Wilson?

DM: Actually Vincent had met her previously and kind of set us up, because our work is so similar.

AM: Yeah, I really liked your work together.

DM: I was really excited when I saw her work because she just had a show in New York with two of my good friends.

"Skinny Ghost", Dave Murray, 2009

AM: Making the web.

DM: Yeah, but the Art Institute definitely kind of gets its students out there. I’ve been in another show in the West Loop when I was still a student I had a chance to be in the Next Fair, which is part of Art Chicago. Through the Art Institute I wound up having shows in Miami as well.

AM: Was your work in the LVL3 show previously made work? Or did you both talk about pieces to make for the show itself? Or was is a combination?

DM: It was a little bit of a combination. I had a studio visit with Alison and Vincent, almost 8 months ago in the winter of last year, they approached me and said they were interested in doing a show. And so we looked at what I had at that point. But that was all grad school work and I was trying to do new stuff. They were really great they just said okay keep making stuff, and we’ll check in early summer, late spring knowing the show would be at the end of the summer. So it was a lot of new stuff that I made and when they finally found Letha, and our work was such a close fit, that I decided not to put in some of the newer work and to go with the two photos in the show which are older.

AM: The Matterhorn one?

DM: Yeah, and the Ghosts.

AM: I noticed on your website you have sections – actions, skies, sculpture, other – are the actions just documented performance art? What is the idea behind the action works?

DM: That is a very good question. I think going to grad school for photography but not having a background in photography –

AM: So you went to grad school for photography?

"Stars Over the Lake", Dave Murray, inkjet print, 2009

DM: Yup, that was supposedly my area of concentration at the school – but I wound up taking a lot of sculpture classes and doing a lot sculpture work, taking seminars with painters, taking just theory seminars. So I was always surrounded by photographers, and I never really considered myself a photographer. I’m very interested in the mechanism of photography and very interested in the conversation going on around the medium and its conceptual possibilities. But as far as craft, I learned very quickly that I was not, kind of, a photographer’s photographer. One of the highlights of grad school was having a fairly famous photographer who makes beautiful photos come as a visiting artist and we were having a studio visit and he said “this is great, but you should probably get better at taking photos” – and I said “yeah! Exactly! I should, right?” But that was great because it kind of reinforced what I was doing – a photographer could look at it and really take the ideas from it, it was more about a gesture or an object. So, I guess I call those works ‘actions’ because they are photos that point to a gesture or point to something that happens versus the photo on its own being a work. I guess I’m always interested in the object pointing outside of itself.

AM: Like your sky photos. They’re not just your hands and the sky – it’s you flinging water? Or is it actually the stars?

DM: It’s glitter.

AM: Glitter!

DM: Glitter and flash photo.

AM: I see there is a level of humor in your work – with the little lemon and lime with a mustache to match yours. And then, an inflatable shark in a tank – like the Damien Hirst shark in formaldehyde? Or is it sarcastic?

DM: I do. I think a lot of earlier works came off as sarcastic, definitely the shark tank was one of them, but I approach it from a playful place. I want the work to be accessible, and I think some of the earlier work was a little too illustrative versus allowing the viewer that freedom to find their own connection to it. But I, the impetus with the piece was loving the idea of taking Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons – someone who is so beholden to the authenticity of materials, like this is a real tiger shark it has power the object has power, and Jeff Koons being a guy whose work thrives on the in-authenticity, all about the materials becoming something they’re not.

"Seapig" (installation view, left), Dave Murray, 2009

AM: Koons sends orders of porcelain figurines pink panthers and sets them on a pedestal, right?

DM: Yes. These pop-cultural things that already exist, but he is having them made out of the most fantastical materials at the highest cost possible – so I love the idea of those two collaborating for the inflatable shark tank.

AM: You seem to have a large spectrum of mediums – various materials, and what not. What do you find yourself – I guess drawn to?

DM: For me it’s really the material suiting the idea. There isn’t one specific material I really think in. And I think again it goes back to naming things ‘actions’ instead of ‘photographs’. And the theme I keep returning to – which has been changing a bit recently – is the idea of endeavor. As a person who creates art, or as a person who creates anything, as a person who exists day to day, there are certain things you endeavor to accomplish and the varying degrees of success that occur when you try to do anything. I spend a lot of time looking at what we do with those things that aren’t necessarily the success. Which might be the majority of our efforts. You always envision how something will go, it might not always happen that way, but what do you do with what you have. I think that’s the one thing that ties everything together, what do you do with failure, the productivity of failure, and kind of those moments where transcendence is possible. Like throwing glitter – yeah, its little pieces of plastic that wind up littering the ground, but for one two-hundredths of a second, it’s a galaxy. And it goes beyond. The same thing with the ghosts – these very simple beings becoming mortal.

AM: With such personality, too.

DM: It’s about those little slips where something else seems possible.

For more information about Dave’s work, visit his website at www.davidamurray.net.  For more about LVL3 Gallery, visit www.lvl3gallery.com.

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