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Lost Identities: Surrealist Works of Jo Owens Murray and Clifford Lamoree
The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art is pleased to announce the opening of Lost Identities: Surrealist Works of Jo Owens Murray and Clifford Lamoree. The exhibition debuted at the Loretto Museum April 4 and.continues through June 15, 2003. The exhibition will then travel to the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Ligonier Valley, where it will be on view June 27 through August 31, 2003. (left: Jo Owens Murray, Venus on the Half Shell, 1999, 18 x 16 x 16 inches, mixed media)
The Lost Identities exhibition highlights two distinct tendencies in Surrealism: haunting sculptural assemblages, as exemplified by Owens Murray's beaded and bejeweled sculptures, and meticulously realistic paintings of incongruent subjects, as seen in Lamoree's work, said SAMA Fine Arts Curator Dr. Graziella Marchicelli. "The exhibition illustrates not only the lasting power of Surrealism, a movement born in Europe nearly a century ago, but also the thriving and varied adaptations of Surrealism in America," said Marchicelli. (right: Jo Owens Murray, Side Show, 1998, 31 x 12 x 15 inches, mixed media)
These two Pennsylvania artists continue a specific genre of American Surrealism referred to as "Social Surrealism," which utilizes haunting imagery that is provocative in its social and political content. "Their art is indebted to the ideas and techniques of Surrealism," said Marchicelli. "The practice of assemblage, the use of found objects, the irrational associations of incongruous subjects, and the importance of psychology as a Surrealist wellspring are all tendencies that have flourished since the dawning of Surrealism, and all can be witnessed in the works of these two talented artists."
A self-taught artist, Owens Murray is originally from South Carolina but has been living in Pennsylvania for nine years. She graduated from Rosemont College in 1993 with a B.A. in art history. Her three-dimensional sculptural assemblages employ an array of brilliantly colored beads to address the human emotion and, more specifically, issues facing women in today's society. Her work is included in the permanent collection of four museums, including the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
"My sculptures reflect my own upbringing as a young girl - my fantasies combined with the realities of today. My work tells of the myth of how women should be seen and not heard," she said. "The mannequins represent the distorted idea that a woman's worth is in her outer appearances. But it is not just how others see a woman, but how women have been too concerned with their appearances to pay attention to what truly matters in their lives.
"That is why my 'girls' are nothing more than empty, beautiful hollow shells. Like the Surrealists, I have transformed women into fixtures. They are only parts and never whole." (left: Clifford Lamoree, Dancers at the Edge of Time, 1997, oil, 60 x 72 inches)
Lamoree, originally from Albany, N.Y., has been interested in art all his life. It was while stationed in Turkey with the U. S. Air Force that he completed his first landscape from nature. Upon finishing his military career, Lamoree entered The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1967. Frustrated, he left after two years, though returned in 1971 and received his certificate two years later, when he was awarded the Henry J. Scheidt Memorial Traveling Scholarship. Around that same time, be was invited by artist Julian Levy to participate in the Childe Hassam Purchase Fund Exhibition at The American Academy of Arts and Letters. (right: Clifford Lamoree, Cyclist, 2000, (side view), mixed media sculpture, 39 x 18 x 96 inches)
"I am not interested in creating beauty, but rather a visualization of my feelings and observations concerning life's conditions," said Lamoree, who has received numerous professional awards including the Thomas E. Clarke Prize from The National Academy of Design. "My work is concerned with the elemental forces that propel man and his human condition through an inhuman environment. I am concerned with man and his inequities; his self-destruction both morally and psychologically; and his fears, frustration and loneliness. I also am concerned with the forces that propel man to war and the devastating effects they have on the human psyche, as well as the environment."
Jo Owens Murray
The Surrealist inclination to aestheticize found objects and often juxtapose incongruent ones led to the experimentation of department store mannequins as art objects-a natural choice considering the mannequin's malleability. In the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme, organized by Paul Eluard, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp at the Galerie Beaux-Arts, the Surrealists presented department store mannequins as apparitions d'etres-objets (phantom object-beings).1 Andre Masson's female mannequin attracted the most attention. "Her head is imprisoned in a bird cage...her mouth masked, with a pansy directly over the opening...She cannot speak; she is entrapped even as she is decorated, wearing at once too much and too little, dressed up and dressed down, naked and rendered mute, added to and subtracted from, but most of all entrapped"2 The female mannequin was the Surrealists' readymade plaything-tamed, silent and submissive.
The female mannequin has also fascinated Jo Owens Murray. A self-taught artist, Murray received a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Rosemont College, Pennsylvania in 1993, and managed Rosemont College's Women's Center until she decided to become a full time artist. Born in Durham, North Carolina, Murray left home at age nineteen, eventually settling in Pennsylvania where her family roots lie.
Although Murray started her career as a photographer, she was drawn to assemblage sculpture by way of experiments with various materials and fabrics. Murray's assemblage sculptures, which she calls "the girls", are unique and exceptional examples of contemporary Surrealism, and her application of beads and jewels adhered to mannequins is a pioneering technique. Her sculptures are heavily encrusted with large, brightly colored beads, buttons, mirrors, costume jewelry, plastic flowers, feathers, bridal veils and birdcages.
Murray defies the current art world's tendency to pad each work with profuse rhetoric or lengthy statements. Although she states that her work is about specific concerns regarding women, she makes a point of stepping back and allowing room for viewer interpretation. Murray's beaded sculptures prompt questions about beauty, femininity, identity, loss, grief and redemption. Her sculptures explore myths about women. Journalist Burton Wasserman wrote that Murray's work has "deeply rooted layers of personal memory, thought and feeling, joined with reflections on the various roles played by women in society, past and present."3 About herself, Murray says, "My sculptures reflect my own upbringing as a young girl, my fantasies combined with the realities of today."
Murray's beaded sculptures have many personae. They are warriors, princesses, mothers, brides and circus performers. "My work tells of the myth of how women should be seen and not heard. They should reflect only their external beauty. As women we have become more concerned with our outer appearance. That is why my girls are nothing more than empty, hollow shells; all they have is their outer beauty. Like the Surrealists, I have transformed women into fixtures. They are only parts and never whole."
Bird in a Gilded Cage (1999) and Gateway to Your Soul (1998) depict female heads covered with bright, colorful jewels. In Bird in a Gilded Cage, a woman's beautiful beaded and jeweled head is placed inside a cage decorated on one side with a garland of red flowers. Her left eye is a flower and her right a mirror. She has grapes wrapped around her neck and her mouth is sealed with a butterfly. The woman is pure ostentation, literally all glitz, and she is trapped. Murray describes the woman as "always pretty, always thin and always quiet."
In Gateway to Your Soul, a beaded head hangs from a bird stand. The eyes are replaced with mirrors, allowing the viewer to see his or her own eyes. The bodiless woman suggests enchantment and seduction, but there is, at the same time, something menacing about her. Her collar is reminiscent of a spiderweb and the beads around her mirror-eyes suggest a mask. Carl Jung's "dark side of the self" is hinted at here; it is "the most dangerous thing of all, precisely because the self is the greatest power in the psyche."4
Murray's bejeweled assemblages of female mannequin heads, mannequin bodies and masks suggest a host of intriguing dualities: beauty/ugliness, virgin/harlot, predator/prey, human/automaton, among others. Let's Play (2001), for example, brings to mind more than one duality. Half mannequin, half horse, Let's Play is a mannequin torso with a horse's head. The half human, half animal figure wears a wedding dress and is adorned from head to waist with ewels and beads. Murray's horse-mannequin stands straight and looks ahead, oddly reminiscent of the host of mythological characters and deities of a zoomorphic nature: Bast, the cat-headed Egyptian goddess; Ganesha, the Hindu god with an elephant's head; the Greek sphinx, a monster with a woman's head and a lion's body, just to name a few. Beyond the evident duality of man/animal, the juxtaposition of horse and wedding dress also suggests such dualities as power/innocence and passion/virginity.
Murray explores a variation of the old saying, "Clothes make the man." Instead, she plays with the idea, "Clothes make the woman." The mannequin bust, Material Girl (1997), is a self-absorbed beauty with high cheekbones and prominent, red lips sealed with a jewel. Similarly, Lady in Red (2001) also conveys conceit and vanity. Murray observes, "Jewelry provides a history of women through different style periods....We can look back to the earliest drawings, carvings and paintings, and you will always find women adorned with jewelry. We are always trying to enhance our appearance by adding pretty objects to cover our bodies." Murray is critical of women who use jewelry to hide themselves; she asks "Have we turned ourselves into the object we wear?" Are we stopping others from seeing us, our true selves?
Murray leaves the observer with more questions than answers. The assemblages are highly evocative but forever puzzling. She approaches each work with a keen sense of intention and strategy, but, in the true spirit of Surrealism, she avoids easy answers for her viewers. Rather, she lets nuance, strangeness, unease and mystery abound.
Graziella Marchicelli, Ph.D.
Fine Arts Curator
1 Jon Stratton, Man Made Women, <http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/issue-Sept-1996/stratton.html>. (5 February 2003).
2 M.A. Caws, "Ladies Shot and Painted: Female Embodiment in Surrealist Art," The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986): 264-5.
3 Burton Wasserman, Art Matters, 2000.
4 Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, ed. Marie-Luise von Franz, (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964): 216. This book was published after the death of Carl G. Jung.
Artist Clifford Lamoree belongs to the group of Surrealist artists, including Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, united by an inclination to create precisely rendered, representational imagery of irrational, absurd or counterintuitive ideas or fantasies. Lamoree eschews the aim merely to capture pleasurably beautiful things; rather, he paints in order to visualize his feelings and observations about the world, which he accomplishes by means of a Surrealist vocabulary with existential connotations. He presents a world that is lost and barren. Anxiety and dread reign supreme.
Lamoree has labored extensively over his paintings and sculptures for many years. His artistic career began while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Turkey as Station Manager for the Armed Forces Radio. There, he painted the Turkish landscape and came to the realization that he wanted to be an artist. Upon leaving the Air Force in 1967, Lamoree studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but left the academy after two years, finding himself frustrated and unable to paint. Away from the classroom environment, he began painting again, composing images from memory. The result was a small painting, The Beginning (1971), which opened his creative "floodgates." In 1971, Lamoree reentered the Academy and graduated in 1973. That same year, he was awarded the Henry J. Scheidt Memorial Traveling Scholarship. Since then, he has received numerous awards, including the Thomas E. Clarke Prize from the National Academy of Design, the Mary Butler Memorial Trust Fund Purchase Award from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Lynn Martin Memorial Award.
True to Surrealism, Lamoree has endeavored to broaden our view of reality by painting images that belong to the realm of dreams and nightmares. In the philosophical manner of Magritte, the dreams in question are not the dreams conjured by sleep, but instead self-willed dreams1, "dreams which are intended to wake you up."2 Lamoree practices the Surrealist approach that fuses irrationality to optical clarity. Cognitively, we measure reality with certain tools-the eye chief among them. Surrealist painters play with this most intrinsic human quality by presenting viewers with irrationalities or absurdities in such an optically precise manner that the counterintuitive scene is both unassailable and impossible.
Lamoree's paintings are born of concerns regarding current sociological conditions, the loss of spirituality, ecological pollution, the threat of nuclear annihilation, among others. His painting Rush Hour (2001) shows headless men in black coats carrying umbrellas and briefcases. They walk about in a desolate gray city. The umbrella men are cold, faceless, black figures akin to Dante's lost souls in the Divine Comedy. Lamoree states that "the umbrella is to them as a blanket is to an infant: security in this case, protecting them from acknowledging their actions. They remain cold, aloof. There is no expression of warmth, instead an intense finality." The grim image brings to mind the nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's words: "I stick my finger into existence-it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it who has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted?" In Lamoree's painting, Perdition (2000), the same headless men in black are ascending a volcano where they will be incinerated. About this, Lamoree comments, "the figures are hollow, both visually and spiritually...they are headless, symbolizing a non-thinking society." Perdition and Rush Hour address the dichotomy of conformity verses individuality, a recurring theme in Lamoree's work.
Echo from the Future (2001) and Madonna of the Laptop (2000) demonstrate Lamoree's preoccupation with moral decay. His nightmare painting, Echo from the Future, is a vision of a world death-ridden that is barren, without promise. In this future, men, women and children are mere shades of a past existence, which prompting our curiosity about the cause of this desolation. Madonna of the Laptop subverts the traditional Virgin and Child portrait by placing the subjects in a sterile landscape and representing the Christ Child as a computer. The image of a golden halo appears on the computer's screen. The halo, traditional in Western Art, is typically a circular aura of light appearing behind the head of a divine or holy person. Here, though, holiness is not easily understood, or clearly ascribed; the viewer is given nothing but uncertainties, surrounded by a grim and uncertain landscape. Surrealism of this kind prompts what can perhaps be understood as a Surrealist moment: a feeling of being unmoored, cast adrift from solid ground.
Lamoree's approach has consistently balanced the Surrealist penchant for disquieting, verisimilitudinous dreaming with his own anxious observations about sociopolitical matters. Therefore, it would be more accurate to place Lamoree's art in the subcategory of Social Surrealism. Sunday Morning at the Met (2000) for example, suggests the blindness of the art establishment; Spiritual Lollipop (1999), the spiritual vacuity of organized religion; Post Apocalyptic Parade (1996), the Pyrrhic victory of a nuclear war; and Academia (2000) the educational establishment's assembly line production of soulless conformists. Lamoree's style straddles the more familiar Surrealist vocabulary that includes forbidding landscapes and anonymous, biomorphic and macabre figures with the overt social criticism more often associated with artists outside of the Surrealist movement, such as the Social Realist Ben Shahn and contemporary artist Barbara Kruger. Art historian Michael Tomor observes about Shahn, "Social commentary often materialized in his paintings as allegory."3 Barbara Kruger confronts the viewer with unsettling slogans juxtaposed to images culled from magazines, movies, posters and other forms of popular culture. Her subversive transformations catch the viewer's eye with slogans that allude to physical and emotional violations. Interestingly, Lamoree also addresses contemporary controversial issues, but he chooses the Surrealist idiom, the movement famous for its playful use of obfuscation, mystery and fantasy.
Graziella Marchicelli, Ph.D.
Fine Arts Curator
1 A.M. Hammacher, Rene Magritte, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995): 18.
2 Ibid., 18.
3 Michael Tomor, Ph.D., Magic Realism, (Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, 1999): 4.
The above essays are reprinted with permission of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art which was granted March 19, 2003.
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