Brett Murray - 'The Hero' at Bell-Roberts Art Gallery
by Nic Dawes
One approaches a Brett Murray exhibition titled 'The Hero' with certain expectations around the artist's manipulation of his own persona, and his tendency to deploy his iconographic vocabulary like a cultural cluster bomb. As it happens the show both courts and resists those expectations, and in the end it may divide opinion much more than the facile controversy over Murray's Africa work.
When the Sun Rises the Sun Sets places us squarely in the Old West of the cinema. A large diptych, it presents two perpendicular slices through a widescreen panorama. The dark mesas and blood-drenched skies are assembled from red and black polycarbonate, and each panel has half of the titular aphorism etched into it, so there can be no mistake about the absolutely compressed narrative arc of the work. The similarly mounted Us and Them is fabricated the same way, but in this instance a small band of cowboys strides into the redness of the evening lands. This, Murray reminds us, is the zero-sum eschatology of the west: the beginning is necessarily the end; I win, you lose.
One's immediate formal impression of these pieces is that Murray is dissatisfied with the flatness of his signature metal cutouts, and wants to rob them of even their relief from the wall. On the contrary, however, what gives these plastic wall sculptures their compelling quiddity is the worked surface of the Perspex, which has been buffed with emery paper until only a few shiny scratches catch the light. It's a surface that becomes involving in ways quite distinct from the clichéd western imagery, but nonetheless lends it gravity.
The God of this landscape is a life-size metal cutout of the lone cowboy in matt white silhouette with a plastic label reading "God" in red copperplate on his chest. This is hypermasculinity along the lines of Wyatt Earp, perfectly cool, flat, and inevitably camp (where the other pieces are simply a little arch). Earp wears the badge of the law on his breast, but behind him stands a perfectly singular authority: The Man with No Name, a factor of the divine or radical law, whose only judgment is death. His violence redeems itself and the American landscape, but it cannot save him or us.
Of course even the outlaw hero can be deputised if the story requires it, but it is generally the officers of a corrupt and profane police force who ride out in pursuit of him. This point is made with unabashed simplicity in With God On Our Side and The Holy Trinity, in which a trio of gallows is ranged upon some distant Calvary, and labelled Love, Compassion, Forgiveness.
No one listens to Johnny Cash without assuming an ironic expression these days, but more people are listening to him than ever before; Brett Murray, it seems, is one of them.
Of course there are numerous films - particularly from the 1970s and 80s - in which the nihilism of the best spaghetti westerns was replaced by moralism, by sentimental violence which effectively reduces the Man with No Name to a noble sheriff defending the innocent. Where once his law-giving violence was redeemed only by the absolute requirements of revenge, it is now asked to pull a wagonload of civilians and a woman along in its wake. It's almost as if The Wild Bunch, with its single code (masculine friendship) and its endless succession of brutality, lust and greed, frightened all the producers back into melodrama.
At some point in the process of making the work on this exhibition, something similar appears to have happened to Murray. It seems he doesn't want to be Bart Simpson, or even a fancy-dress US marshall any more, instead he wants to be an older kind of artist-hero. He wants to grab the monster of history by the tail, wrestle it to the ground and pin it to the wall where he can name its parts. These, apparently, are binary arrangements of race, ethnicity, religion, and ideology held together by the myth of the hero-saviour.
You and Me is perhaps not the weakest example of this tendency: mirror image cowboy cutouts face each other on the wall, each with several plastic labels on his chest. On the left-hand figure these read "The Protestant, The Muslim, The Israeli, The Tutsi, The Farmer", while on the right are ranged "The Catholic, The Christian, The Palestinian, the Hutu and the War Veteran". Heroes, a set of bronze action figures, is labelled in similar opposing dyads; despite their muscular gravity these just about float away on the lightness of their conjecture. With that the determined analysis and nicely judged humour of the preceding works collapse into banality.
The icons of the western are of the West, and they speak to Judeo-Christian questions of law and violence in very specific terms. To attempt to reduce an appallingly repetitive history of atrocity to the iconic field the western makes available, with a casual nod to Nietzsche, Ennio Morricone and Bonanza, is utterly inadequate to the immense demand issued by the dead.
The series of works incorporating swastikas is, if anything, worse. Not because the crooked cross should be taboo, and not because its conflicted occult and sacerdotal history is too vast and too articulate to survey in this fashion, but because of the way that this specific symbol is asked to provide a vague and gestural comment on our genocidal history.
There might be a case to be made around the aestheticised politics of fascism and the political aesthetic of the western, but Murray does not make it, and I don't think it's too strong to say that these works amount to simple bad faith in the face of both the Shoah and the unnamed holocausts that came afterward.
Pop can certainly live in the shadow of atrocity, as Murray himself has shown in the past, but the artist's ordinarily deft handling of his material seems to have deserted him briefly here, and the result tells us much less than it might about the twilight of the western idols, or what the blurb on the price list calls "nationalism, racism and religious intolerance".
The real difficulty for the viewer is that the apparent conceptual unity of the show makes it hard to return to the really strong work without seeing farmers and war veterans pursuing each other across the empty landscape of The End, but to do justice to Murray the effort must be made. If you are having trouble, go home and watch A Fistful of Dollars, then come back to the gallery, take five or six paces inside, and go no further. Now look again.