Stories from the Inside

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An Interview with MFA Student Ben Murray

Ben Murray is a painter and sculptor from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s MFA program who will be exhibiting work at Gallery 400 in the upcoming MFA thesis show A strange house in my voice. Murray was interviewed by Gail Gomez.

Gail Gomez: Where did you do your undergraduate work?

Ben Murray: I went to school at the Herron School of Art [in Indianapolis] and previous to that I went to the American Academy of Art, which is an academic figure drawing school here in Chicago.

GG: After that, did you go straight to UIC?

BM: No, actually UIC was the only program I applied to in Chicago. I applied to other MFA programs but chose this one because of the community and the faculty.

GG: As far as your work goes, how has it evolved since you have been in the program? Were you making sculptural work before you came to UIC?

BM: Before coming to UIC I took about a six-year break from painting, and was very interested in sculpture. I worked collaboratively with family members and used materials that they had touched and then would form into sculptural works.

GG: Right, like the balloons and the beads?

BM: Right. At the time my mom had passed, and there were all these objects that when someone passes, have a lot of power and you can’t throw them away because they have some kind of memorializing or lasting power within them. There was something about that and having that kind of presence within a work that began to really interest me.

GG: That has been my experience with your work; it is easy to connect with. It’s really very personal, a lot of it is really about you, but it also seems very accessible.

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Image: from left: Ben Murray, Ash, 2012, oil on canvas, 79 x 102 in.; Beds, 2012, oil on canvas, 79 x 102 in.; Ledge, 2012, oil on canvas, 92 x 72 in. (installation view).

BM: That’s one of the more curious things that I am interested in. One of the big shifts in my work since starting at UIC is that I am more a part of the subject, and I’m really interested in how the viewer can have a shared experience with something that I find as a subject from my past. When I came to UIC the notion of starting to paint again was unexpected, and that [idea that] painting could be a pragmatic step in the process of my work. Because oil painting is such a traditional medium, it was weird to think that painting today was something that you could do as a step forward. I mean there have been a lot of defining moments. My first year, I was able to meet with LaToya Ruby Frazier and had an amazing studio visit. We have a lot of similar interests in our work that deal with being raised under the shadow of the steel mill.

I think another defining moment of my work changing at UIC had to do with being in conversation with the film process. With film, in order to make a moving picture, you always need the black frame, which is the interval… and with painting, the process that I am interested in, or how my images are born, is a two-part process…I am framing the studio as place for reflection, where, in a way, I am always contemplating the past.

GG: So do you feel like your present self comes through more in your current work then?

BM: I talked just yesterday with UIC alum Nina Barnett about my work and how there is an incompleteness in the image, and because of that there is always the potential for something else, like for someone else to fill in those blanks. These images are all from my memories, but the fact that you get to fill in those blanks with something is like a challenge to whatever is already there… I like the idea that I am able to show more of the stratosphere of the layers in between time and maybe this incompleteness of the images is, in a way, a nod to the future.

GG: I can see that, and I think that is part of what is so strong about your work is its ability to allow the viewer to make those connections and still have all those layers. Because even not knowing you personally, I still feel that your work is accessible in an ambiguous way, like a dream or a foggy memory.

BM: Because of where the politics are embedded in these things, and because these images are of a past experience and are tagged onto something in the past, I think that it gives me the ability to take responsibility for something, right? Felix Gonzalez-Torres has this great quote about the aesthetic object being the most political because it is a built system: somebody is building a system in order to make the aesthetic object, instead of speaking from inside of a system and protesting, so that there is actually a solution or an implementation of a system of beliefs… and that I am really very interested in.

BM: I think that a lot of my images have pathos to them, I mean they have a sad disposition to them because there are a lot of things to be sad about in this world… being human, and especially being a middle-class white male in America, I think there is a responsibility to not be glorifying in the imagery.

GG: Right, that would not be moving art forward, in these times especially.

BM: And that is another aspect of UIC that is really wonderful. For example, feminism is really strong here. There are some very strong women involved with the MFA program and there is a lot of intellect that comes with that, which is really inspiring.

GG: I think UIC in general is very focused on social justice, and is very forward thinking and it is prevalent in the MFA and the Museum Studies programs for sure. Is that a way UIC has affected your work?

BM: Yes, I mean it has at least made me a lot more conscious of it. I have always wanted to make humanist work. The weird thing about the art world at least for me… from my vantage point… is that making artwork has very little payoff unless you are adjusting the critical ends of how you look at the world and I think that is largely supported at UIC.

GG: Do you feel like that aspect of outward thinking is another way your work has changed here?

BM: Before coming to UIC, working with my family members had such a direct connection to the object that the conversation was very closed off, and it was completely between them and me. Anybody else entering the conversation would interrupt it in a way, so there was something that was totally missing. Since coming to UIC, that is something that I’ve definitely changed in my work, in order to open up that conversation. The subjects are still about relationships, but they are very much about the relationship between me and an object…it is a much thinner skin for someone else to be able to walk into.

GG: So do you work more in painting than three-dimensionally, or a little bit of both?

BM: I am definitely doing both; I am still a half and half guy.

GG: Does one medium challenge you more than another?

BM: No, I would say it is all pretty challenging. I had to spend the better part of a year painting, and over the summer I did a residency at Ox-Bow where I essentially locked myself in a cabin and painted forever because I had to teach myself how to paint again and build up the confidence in mark-making, and learn how to mix oil paint again to get the right colors. I think both painting and sculpture offer different opportunities.

BM: Oil painting stays wet longer and I am interested in that striation of layers…and each one of those layers can be really complicated because of time, because you can move it around…there is something really wonderful about that. But until it dries it is also kind of overwhelming, which is part of the challenge.

With the three-dimensional work it is different because I am working with the space much more directly, and because it is in the round there is a different kind of architectural history that I have to contend with, instead of just [the] image…with painting and sculpture I am interested in the image. It has been said that my sculptures are in a way “sicker” than my paintings because they [have] much more of [a] durational aspect…maybe because these pieces are weaker in way, for instance the lean on the swing set or the chair that is missing that piece underneath the seat…

GG: Right, the sculptures have a fragility to them.

BM: Yeah, these pieces all speak to different times in a way. There is an incompleteness to them; there is something in them that is trying to break a comfortable structure. I do not want to make the space comfortable because I do not think that I am [comfortable].

GG: I am really looking forward to your and Tina Tahir and Cameron Gibson’s upcoming show at Gallery 400.

BM: I think the show will be great, all of us are approaching a sense of the domestic in different way…I think it is going to be a really sad show.

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Image: Ben Murray, Ceiling, 2011, wood, acrylic textured paint, attic ladder, and ceiling fan with audio loop, 120 x 192 x 60 in. (installation view).
Gail Gomez is a student in the Museum and Exhibition Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.