Diorama of a madman

When Chris Murray was a child, he spoke as a child, understood as a child and thought as a child. But when he became a man, he said, “Nyahhh!”

Some artists follow Old Masters. Others look to teachers and mentors. This artist looks backward to move his art forward. Murray is inspired by the illustrations in the children’s books by Ezra Jack Keats — who wrote “Snowy Day,” “Whistle for Willie” and “Louie” — and the drawings in “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and the Paddington Bear series.

Don’t think of his style as immature. Children’s lit has enjoyed a renaissance during the last decade. The University of Arizona Museum of Art featured an exhibit, “Dreamweavers,” that featured some of the top creators of modern children’s illustration.

Modern children’s book illustration has it roots in Salvador Dali, Edgar Degas and — of course — in children themselves. One of the endearing characteristics of this style is an intense level of detail that blends skill and imagination to capture other-worldly scenes and unreal landscapes in such a way as to make them believable.

And with enthusiasm so intense that Murray can hardly finish a sentence about his new works, he described what he is building in his magic tree house: dioramas.

Murray has taken that bane of elementary school social studies projects and turned it into a peep show for the new millennium. In his little boxes made of ticky-tacky, nothing looks just the same.

“I have a little city scene and some random stuff — paper cutouts, different layers. I like to bring somebody to a whole other world… give you an escape from reality,” Murray said. “Or even for myself. It’s my escape from reality. That’s why I’ve always made art and not really cared if I sold anything or not.”

In this case, he’s made small-scale models of real or imaginary environments. The two-dimensional scenes are constructed of wood and paper cutouts, hidden in closed boxes and separated from the viewer by a Plexiglas peephole. In addition to the children’s books he loved, Murray also found inspiration in the surrealist technique of New York City Ballet set designer Edward Gorey. His work, which in turn inspired that of filmmaker Tim Burton, involved placing wooden “flats” in such a way as to create a three-dimensional perspective on a stage.

But something else about the two-dimensional world appeals to Murray.

“I guess it’s the simplicity. It’s like what things look like to me. It’s like a whole other world you get to go into. A lot simpler world,” Murray said.

Yet, there is something sinister about the scenes that Murray creates. While simpler, perhaps, in construction, there is constructed within them a statement about voyeurism and perspective. The insidiousness to be gleaned from this type of postmodern peeping has to do with the act of peeping itself. The viewer looks from a godlike perspective onto a scene comprised of inanimate objects. Are they representational or fantastical? Are they statement or question? Is Murray constructing a world of his making or deconstructing our own?

As postmodern peepers, moving images are presented before us every day in what is a visual culture: through film, television, video and whatever we load on our iPods. We’re inundated with anever-shifting, yet carefully controlled dose of “reality” entertainment. Voyeurism has become a safe choice, one we can assume without risk or involvement, unlike L.B. Jeffries in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Unlike filming a movie of our own. Unlike living lives worth watching.

Even unlike the children’s books that Murray goes back to time and again. Those books are intended to absorb young readers, engrossing them in ideas and possibility. It’s one of the reasons Murray returns to them as inspiration.

“I’ve been working on a children’s book. It’s not going to be out for a while, but a lot of my illustrations are based on that,” he said.

The book is a hybrid of a graphic novel and the choose-your-own-adventure format that adults may remember fondly. Murray certainly does. They were verboten in his household, prompting him to commit childish crimes.

“My mom wouldn’t let me read them because she thought they were like pulp fiction, so I had to sneak them from the library,” he laughed. “I used to love those things so much, just to have control over the endings.”

The book will be published using a non-traditional method. Like everything Murray does, he’ll do it his own way. He’ll do it himself.

Look also for Murray’s recent forays into ceramics and more of his pen-and-ink illustrations at the wine reception celebrating the opening of his show.

Chris Murray
Frameworks/Tire City Potters
Reception Sunday, Aug. 5
3-8 p.m.
Show runs through Aug. 31

Posted in Art

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