An Artist Captures American History with a Bic Pen

What defines a state? And is it possible to do so visually? Artist Ethan Murrow, who has developed a “subjective retelling of American history” through his art over the past few years, proposes that “every image and every symbol is always insufficient.” His compelling new show at Winston Wachter Fine Art’s Chelsea outpost, “State Flag,” is an answer to these questions, and a discussion of iconic American imagery, one state at a time. Through this latest series of his impeccable, hyperrealistic drawings, Murrow endeavors to capture “the drama and contrast of the way in which America presents itself to the rest of the world.” The show’s centerpiece is a temporary, site-specific wall-drawing titled “State,” and we caught up with the artist on the eve of the show’s opening, as he was adding the finishing touches.

“Every image is the start of a story rather than being the defining factor,” Murrow says of each state drawing. Culling his visual material from historical societies and image banks, the artist creates his meticulous drawings through appropriating these found images, and applying his knowledge of statehood, gleaned from personal experiences, historical literature, and the spirit and romanticism of the Hudson River School. Also pointing to the tiny illustrations of landmarks and state birds found on the reverse-side of state quarters, “mini developments of nationalism in each state,” Murrow was enticed by the blatant superficiality. In his drawings, he shares his own personal “long term digestion of what it means to be in these places,” pursuing those states which he knows best. Utilizing visual metaphors, he engages with contemporary issues in American society, including the environment—depicting subjects dressed in summer clothes in an icy climate—and the economy—the New York drawing depicts two men carrying a mirror reflecting the scene of a crashed racecar. While he’s not sure yet, this initial series may be the impetus to ultimately tackle all fifty states.

“There’s a lot of risk in the wall drawing, which is part of what I like about it.” While the artist is known for his graphite drawings, heavily planned, precise works that from afar, are easily mistaken to be photographs, the wall drawing is done in ballpoint pen, in his words, “the cheapest possible material I could use.” He prefers Bic, and reveals that he goes through hundreds for each drawing, always on guard for the potential for an ink explosion, attracted by the “fine glossy feel.” Since completing his first work of this kind—an isolated meteorite drawing on the wall of Winston Wächter’s Seattle location in 2010—Murrow has pursued theses opportunities, completing six or seven such works since. He’s drawn to the performative nature, the freer quality he’s able to achieve, and the spontaneity: “I love being up on a ladder, inventing in the moment.” It’s all temporary though, particularly the work itself, which will be painted over at the end of the show. Sad as it may be, this temporality factor is compelling; as Murrow points out, it forces us to consider “what the value of an artwork might be, and what it means to make an image or piece to sit in space purely for the fact of discussion and viewing, and not for collecting or investing.” This opportunity of “art for art’s sake” is a rarity in the art world at present, particularly in Chelsea. You have until May 31st.

State Flag” is on view at Winston Wächter Fine Art, New York, Apr. 10th–May 31st, 2014.

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