In eleven heroically-scaled pencil drawings each nearly the size of a sheet of plywood, ex-Seattleite Ethan Murrow portrays his intrepid wife engaged in a series of odd encounters with spherical objects of various sizes and shapes. His current show “Will be Snaring Meteorites”, has very little to do with actual interplanetary material, but is rather an ode to the pursuit of the impossible. Here, with his observations about the show, is KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin.
Just as Becket’s Vladimir and Estragon engage in an enterprise with no possibility of achieving their goal (Godot will never come), Murrow’s Vita occupies a peculiar sort of limbo where futility is the point of the undertaking, which has no relation to its actual quarry. But artful futility is a temperamental beast; the least successful drawings have a contrived quality, with tableaus that are too self-consciously stagey to feel sincere. The best of the drawings are the simplest, where Murrow’s pencil wizardry, dramatic scale, and compositional flair combine to the most striking effect.
In one such drawing “Will Be Snaring Meteorites – And Never Doubt the Training”, Vita is seen from underneath, only her head and arms visible just above the bottom of the image. She reaches calmly upwards to grab what looks like a medicine ball the size of a truck tire. Arching above the ball is fair weather sky with cheerfully fluffy white cumulus clouds, the better to highlight its black, shiny surface. Like all of the spherical objects in the show, the over-sized exercise ball (it might also be a giant bowling ball) is a make-believe version of meteor. Other props, particularly rows of Whiffle balls and a fuzzy puff pillow, are even more beside the point. Only a pitted grey sphere with the appearance of a miniature moon makes an actual connection to galactic debris, and Murrow is careful to give even this rock a too-good-to-be-true polish and symmetry. In short, nothing is real and the main character is delusional, but the artist clearly finds her misguidedness charming, and asks the same of us.
I’m not so charmed by the busyness of the image subtitled “And Anticipate the Outcome”. Set in the same school gymnasium that appears in a number of the images, the drawing features Vita crouched on the wooden floor, strenuously multi-tasking. Her left hand secures a cluster of Whiffle balls strung onto a clothesline, while her right hand grips a steel pole directed at something outside the frame, on which her attention is focused. A black medicine ball has come to rest nearby, while various white balls, large and small, are scattered about, one hovering weightlessly in the distance. A close look reveals peculiar craters pitting the gym wall, as though it had been struck by a meteor or two.
I’m lost in the complexity of this drawing, with too much artifice and too many loose ends. There’s no way to relate to the contorted activities of the main character, and no way to connect the dots of all the information Murrow gives us – the intricate but irrelevant pattern of the distant ceiling, the stadium lights being randomly on or off, the cardboard box in the corner. The great advantage of a draughtsman over a photographer is the ability to be selective and intentional; this image is weighted down with an unconvincing narrative and too much visual clutter.
Much better, and much more involving of the viewer are straightforward, confrontational drawings like “And Breathes as it Rains”, where Vita confidently locks eyes with us through what looks like a porthole in the skin of a giant meteorite, standing in what might be either an interior or exterior space. I like the sense here of a bifurcated world with two very different mindsets on either side of a hermetic divide; but who here is the inmate, and who is the keeper? Who gets to define normal?
Also terrific (although the title leaves something to be desired) is the drawing “And Seek out a Grazing”. One of the two drawings with no meteors at all, the image uses a towering northwest fir as a metaphor for lofty ambitions and a connection to the great beyond. The image tilts precariously, from the slanting close-up of Vita’s head in the lower right to the equally slanted, tapering trunk of the giant tree. Murrow uses both the odd angle and the Vita’s wacky hardhat and expression to give the image its tragicomic spin (here more Don Quixote than Godot), but in person it’s the gorgeous mark-making of his pencil work that really catches your eye. The graphite is applied in layers of varying focus and intensity, and there’s a freedom and energy to the abstract swirls and erasures that create the illusion of channeled bark, tendril limbs, and filmy foliage from a distance. I wonder if the drawings might benefit from bringing the calligraphy more to the fore, rather than something you notice only at very short range.
An equally impressive drawing is only meant to last as long as the show. Substituting ball-point pen for pencil, Murrow spent several days on a stepladder drawing a meteor directly on the sheet rock wall at the gallery entrance, far below which he added the silhouette of his hapless heroine, like a human-shaped mouse hole. Here the imaginary has become far more tangible than the actual, with Vita reduced to a dim cipher while the space rock has burst the limits of the framed drawings. Though it is the first thing one sees, it brings the narrative to a fitting close. This specific drawing will be painted over, but the gallery can arrange for it to be redone for a client anxious to add a bit of celestial frisson and cosmic mystery to a personal space of their own.