Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Dwelling with You - James Murnane

Like vapours from a thurible, Murnane’s iridescent veils of paint swell and diffuse amorphously. The wood grain is visible through these spare gestures of thin application, its whorls and striations acquiring a likeness to curling smoke too. It is as though surface and mark are harmonising to describe a breath passing over the horizon from abstraction to figuration. Murnane’s paintings borrow from the idiom of Abstract Expressionism in an antiphon to the corpus of Christian iconography.

Responding to the interaction of the edges of the paint and the shapes in the woodgrain, Murnane incises the surface with finely carved lines filled with gold paint. Though they trace and intensify nascent forms, these marks don’t grasp after discernible figures or try and wrest from the painted surface something legible as depiction. Murnane’s practice reverses the order of traditional icon painting techniques: the drawing or graph doesn’t precede and anticipate the application of colour but rather responds to it. 

In these paintings, I see intimations of feathers, arcs sketched by limbs in unfettered motion, and the shiver of ruffled wings. It is as though the spectral figures that I entertain have escaped circumscription and left broken, golden scratches of incomplete outlines. Something intangible is coming or going on this surface. Murnane’s use of iridescent pigments further amplifies this sense of an ephemeral ‘seeing’: they allow ambient light to render shifting hues and reflections on the surface as one moves around the work. The heavy, formal intransigence of traditional Christian icons is relieved and breaks into a coruscant flutter of movement. 

Murnane’s paintings seem to me to image the quickening of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the agent of the Trinity that synthesises duality. It sets the relation between oppositional terms into motion like a spinning coin, such that these terms become constitutive of one another. The archetypal instance of this is flesh and soul, which the Holy Spirit renders in mutuality. The Holy Spirit also permits the relation of the image to its referent. What is immanent in the icon is its potential to unfold before the gaze and open upon the ground of its own possibility. For Christian iconography, that possibility of sacred imaging at all is established in the life of Christ, who is the incarnate image of God. Just as a human is not a soul poured into a container of flesh, Murnane’s paintings expose that icons are not just the addition of line and colour which delivers the ‘solution’ of a figure.  When Murnane stirs the order of line and colour in his lambent compositions, he reveals the operation of model and image inhering in one another that is proper to the icon. His work serves to refresh the viewer’s experience of iconographic images by adducing and transmitting a pétillance from underneath the reified conventions of traditional iconography.

Ann Debono, January 2018

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