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James Austin Murray | Artist Spotlight

New York based artist James Austin Murray finds liberation through constraint by enforcing limits and parameters on his work - leading him into unpredictable directions and discovering entirely new territories to take his paintings. Moving from figurative work to the abstract, his most recent series is comprised of all black oil paintings, focusing on the confines of the canvas space as a means to expand his creative boundaries. 

Instagram: @jamesaustinmurray
Website: www.jamesaustinmurray.com

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How did you come into working with oil paint and what was it about black specifically that inspired your latest series?

I've always had almost a fetish for oil paint. Ever since I was a young artist in high school I loved moving the paint and the challenge it posed to control it. In lots of ways that hasn't changed at all. I do have a more nuanced appreciation for it, having spent most of my life working with oil paint. I might know it better, but still struggle to get it to do exactly what I want.

The black came from a series of paintings I did in the late 90's. Some were all silver or varying degrees of silver paintings. I knew then that one day I'd do black paintings but I wasn't ready for it then. I had a premonition that it was going to take more focus than I had at
the time. I used to jump and change up my work every six to twelve months. When I did start working on the black paintings, I had gone through a number of years of bad health and I really gave up on any kind of art career. They started as small works and eventually grew and matured into the body of work you're familiar with. It's also the longest time I've been so deeply focused on a specific body of work.

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Do you consider the process to be equally as important as the finished work?

That's a tricky question. I think they are both important in different ways. I hope the finished work is my eventual legacy so the finished work is very important to me. I expect them to live beyond me and to hopefully inspire other artists beyond the grasp of this mortal coil.

These paintings started out as breathing meditations with paint. In fact the first one I did, I spent a month working on a little 8” x 10” panel. I wiped it off after the end of the day so I could use it the next day. Small brush and one stroke across, breathe in, a perpendicular stroke, breathe out. It was not my studio work at the time and it took me months to understand what was happening. There was something nice about spending time with these little pieces knowing
they'd be wiped off at the end of the studio day.

Today they still retain some of that breathing exercise and meditation.

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How does that process start for you? How does the shape of a canvas factor into your technique?

When I started these paintings, I was working on small panels and on small canvas sculptures. The shape of a canvas often dictates what happens to the paint or at least gives it a starting point.

After pushing some limits and getting a little off the rails I decided to pull back and began working on square canvases. In art school you learn that a square is the most stagnant shape and a harder shape to activate. I turned that into a challenge.

Then I moved to round canvases. Square and circles are such rudimentary shapes and also still very much shapes with a sculptural reference. There's something more sculptural about a square for instance than a rectangle on a wall. Recently, I've been playing with other shapes. I'm moving slowly while ruminating on these shapes, and enjoying the pace.

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You talk a lot about setting strict parameters for yourself with the materials and canvas space you work with. How did that discipline come about and what has it led you to discover about your work?

It started when I realized that I could do so much with just black paint. Black has such a nice interplay and relation to light. It became a game of sorts, limiting myself more and more eventually working on square and only in black oil paint. It may sound incongruous but there was something relative to what I see in Sol LeWitt's work. His wall drawings were each set up with written parameters. He didn't need to do the drawing, his assistants were able to take the written sheet and follow the instructions, creating the final work. Yet, each iteration is completely different.

Though I was not doing anything quite like his work, I did take his idea of setting up parameters and following them down the path to see what would happen. It's been one of the most rewarding artistic endeavors I've embarked on. I still do lot's of other experimental
work but I've found the less room you have to move the more inventive you're forced to become.

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How does the space your painting in relate to your work?

I think I'm like most artists in this way. Space is hugely important. A few years ago I was working in a small and cramped studio in Chelsea. I loved walking to work every day but I grew out of it. Before that I had been working in my living room. Each step into a larger space has allowed the work to grow in both size and scope.

Similarly, place has a big affect. A couple of winters ago I spent the season in San Diego. Working for an exhibition at Madison Gallery, it was a very focused time in the studio. It was also a time when studio breaks were spent walking along the coast among the tourists and sea lions. The work was very serious still, but had a happiness that I didn't feel in the work before. I think lots of sun for a winter helped that along. I can almost always look at older work and know exactly where I painted the piece, more than when it was painted.

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Was there anything specific that pushed you definitely towards pursuing art?

I always had an interest. It's like something that was always there. I was lucky enough to have enough natural talent to get into art school. I was also lucky enough to not have too much natural talent, this forced me to work really hard. The hard work is what pulls you
through.

What can we expect to see next from you?

I'm still not finished with this work I'm deep into. That said it does feel like it's starting to transform. I'm not sure into what. I've got three other projects I'm working on in the studio. Two are directly related to the current black paintings. One is a revisit from work I was doing 8-10 years ago. I'm excited about all of them but most excited about the older work I'm revisiting. Excitement doesn't always turn into quality work, so, before I let some of these pieces out of
the studio I've promised myself to have fifty studies completed. If I have ten good ones then I'll start to show them around. If not maybe another fifty, or a left turn.