In the six years I worked with Murray Ross, seeing him more often than anyone except my husband, he never once spoke of his boxes. I knew of them, of course, having coveted one for nearly a decade. While he never hesitated to take houseguests to his studio to see his works in progress, he never volunteered any information about them.
In fact, I'd take that one step further. On the rare occasions I asked about a specific box (or text or images he'd used), he'd evade answering altogether and put it back on me. "Well, what do you think?"
Right. Needless to say, he never wrote about them either. Prior to this exhibition, he had showed them once before, many years ago at the (then) Business of Arts Center, again alongside Betty's paintings. I didn't see that show, but he was quite proud of how he'd hung it - one box paired with one painting, a kind of matrimonial dance in objects and brushstrokes.
I'm left then without an artist to interview, though I can't imagine he'd have shared much anyway, and no prior writing exists on his works. So I'll share with you a few facts, some observations, and my own affinity for his art in hopes of encouraging you to consider and talk about them over an extended night at the dinner table.
The Facts (Of Which There Are Many)
Murray founded Theatreworks in 1975 and served as its Artistic Director for more than forty years. His professional life was a profound commitment to teaching, directing, building sandcastles (as he described the process), and seeing theatre.
To some, then, it may come as a surprise, that in addition to theatre, Murray also made things. Real things, ones that wouldn't wash away after closing night. He always had a space for creating things, a private space (physically and psychologically). Murray made lanterns, bookshelves, and was handy around the house. Some of his projects were practical. Others were more playful, decorative, or provocative. Many featured blatant (or nuanced) mash-ups of pop culture from his youth, sports, fine art, and the great American West.
The boxes are laden with images, icons, and ideas from Murray's childhood from his time in LA and London - from cowboys and Indians to Tintin, coloring books to playing cards, sambos to early TV shows.
There is a sense of nostalgia throughout this body of work. However, never are these images treated with sentimentality or as fragile icons. Rather, they are thrust into new narratives and times.
His father, Robert Kenneth Ross, who was an artist and arts administrator in California, also dabbled in dioramas and 3D assemblages. He sent one to Murray in the early 1980s. It depicted a shared moment between the two of them - watching a football game on a portable black-and-white TV in a 1960 International Harvester pickup fondly named Big Red, near Westcliffe, CO. Perhaps that was the inspiration.
Or perhaps, it was a logical progression of drawing, building, and staging scenes in the theatre. Or maybe he clung to a childhood memory of building a diorama after a trip to a natural history museum )although no record exists to suggest that's the case).
Regardless, since the early 2000s, he constructed, assembled, re-constructed, and rarely exhibited about 25 boxes (exact dates on these boxes are unknown).
One of his first boxes was Lewis and Clark, which he worked on around the time of the production by the same name at Theatreworks. It was also the first, in what I would deem a series of incredible, implausible, wildly entertaining adventures.
As was characteristic of all of his boxes, he assembled found objects (plastic, natural, and otherwise) into uncanny, utterly charming, and winsomely bizarre scenes.
Here we have two great adventurers, lost from one another in entirely different landscapes. Poor Lewis is half buried in rock and earth, but tempted by a half-filled, palm-tree-snow-globe mirage. Clark is proudly surveying his trek with nothing but a bird by his side. Not surprising for a man who spent a life in the theatre, Murray created a scene flush with character, motivation, and theatrical tension.
Robert Hughes wrote of Joseph Cornell's boxes in The Shock of the New: "The 'fourth wall' of each box, the glass through which one looks at what is going on inside, is a miniature proscenium arch... the box was an exceptionally convincing way of focusing an image and presenting it as both real and private, plainly in view, but protected from the embrowning air of real life by its glass pane."*
Not all of Murray's boxes have glass panes, very few do in fact. But the effect is the same - though perhaps even more intimate, because the viewer is not separated physically at all from the objects held within. They share the same space. Murray's boxes are fun. Not in a simple, easy, adorable kitten-video kind of way, but in the way they engage and ask you, demand of you, to play along. To explore and learn and find things you never expected. To imagine. Like good theatre.
He would often argue that walking away from a great production of a devastating tragedy could be just as invigorating and life-affirming as seeing a side-splitting comedy. Something of that holds true in these boxes as well.
By and large, Murray's boxes are snippets of adventures - out west, in space, in a lagoon, or through a looking glass of some sort. Each has a variety of characters, from ninjas and angels to athletes and firement. Some have more substance or invite more thought than others, but on the whole, they are active, narrative, and welcoming. Being welcoming is a key to their success, as they require nothing more from the viewer but willful participation - even if just for a moment.
They invite a viewer in, intimately, to explore their contents without alienating or excluding anything. A true democratic experience, as it were. Take, for example the Lost Babies series.
In the first, Fireman's Dilemma, a naked baby figurine is in the glowing fireplace of a printed scene, with firefighters so cheery and at-the-ready for a rescue it's hard to assume too much danger lurks in the cozy interior scene. Besides, a net is perfect for capturing lost babies. Or is it? Something is all a bit off. Sure, one might assume the baby in the fireplace was where it deviated from pedantic or common, but the conterast between the heroes and the angel are where the tension really exists. Is the angel there to keep the baby safe, or usher him/her from this world to another? Pr perhaps the angel is there not for the baby at all but for the poorly equipped firefighters diving into a fire? The title suggests it is the firemen who are at odds. Can they save the baby? Should they? It is this ambiguity between figures that retains the viewer's attention and begs further scrutiny. Although, to be clear, further study will not lead the viewer to "the" answer. How terribly boring that would be.
The second in the series shows the same baby floating in the waves of a lovely, colorful lagoon with a Tintin-esque Thompson or Tomson in a vintage swimsuit diving to his/her rescue. But like the angel in the first, there is a third figure to confuse matters—a man falling from the cliffs in the background. Who pushed the falling man? Did someone push the baby? Who is the diving man saving?
Drowning and burning babies seem terribly dark, but their scenes are bright illustrations of places many would be quite keen to be. A warm, wood-paneled interior, a verdant lagoon under blue skies, these balance the danger or alluded danger so we are left not disturbed, but rather with piqued interest.
The adventures continue across maps and time, often ending in the American West. Expansive vistas, sweeping historical gestures and references to native western flora and fauna are recurring themes.
Though not terribly far west, All Elevated Trains, is a vintage map of Chicago with the three-headed Chakrasamvara atop an unravelling sea of tentacles reaching across the city from Murray's Tobacco core (certainly not a coincidence in nomenclature, and clearly a savvy combination of ego and self-deprecation). The colors and type face invoke a circus-like poster, offering great adventures and new sights to ticket-holders. But looking past these bold images, you'll find a trio of ninjas protecting? invading? the city, a one-on-one game of hoops, and workmen of various specialties.
Certainly visually engaging, but there's something more—an observation of American cities, where the mundane and whimsical are woven together with diversity, grids, infrastructure, and activity. Where labels and titles are only half of the story, and where the curious citizens realize they know (and see) very little of places even infinitely familiar to them.
Murray's profound interest in racial representation found its way to the forefront of these boxes. In many, he featured small sambo figurines— perhaps the most socially, racially, and politically loaded icon in his work. He was wholly unimpeded by the outrageous—the use of these figureines is provocative, infuriating, incendiary and extremely controversial. That was the point. He didn't apply a thick (metaphorical) lacquer over the inherent racism of icons like these to soften their edges. Quite the opposite, he pointed a giant neon sign at it to make you look and consider that object and all it carries for you personally and for us, as a society.
The first (Sambo Character—Jungle Boy) is alone in a jungle with his trumpet. The second (Sambo Character with Whip—Who's in Charge?) is in a much more dangerous scene: a black-and-white photo of a torture chamber (with a French caption), a spinosaurus attacking with a menacingly long tongue (ending in a charming heart pendant), and a whip of swirling metal around him, whip and tongue ready to duel.
Neither are enviable settings. The former perpetuates terrible racial stereotypes, while the latter offers a critique of racism. But in both, the sambos are more objects of curiosity than aggressive provocations.
The third appears in How the West Was Won, in a symbol-laden triptych. The first panel's frame-busting lizard peers over a bow-and-arrow-wielding indian on horseback from a deck of cards - a familiar racial characterizatoin of native populations in manifest destiny. (Note: I've intentionally used the word "indian" because the card is clearly a piece of ephemera celebrating the stereotypes of "cowboys and indians," not a serious or intentional exploration of a specific tribe or individual.) The sambo, this time with a banjo, sits in the joint of a broken bone, with a dwarfed lizard in the background.
The third panel is a herd of cows and milk as seen from above. Murray plays beautifully with the formal elements here - the scale of the lizards, cows, milk, perspective, the layering of objects - with some breaking through the frame - and the story. He's simultaneously exploring America's history of marginalizing others, while celebrating their presence. There's no white man in this story at all. It's terrific. He rewrote history socially, but remained incredibly loyal to the fauna and industry of the early (and current) American West.
Finally, there are three powerful boxes distinct from the others because of their use of text. For a man who spent his life telling stories, his use and potency of words can't be ignored. Two have typed vinyl lettering over a collage of objects, nearly obliterating them.
"Everything was entirely your fault from the start. I never did anything wrong. You deserve to miss me." and "What made you so beautiful?" are weird, off-putting and mysterious invitations for curious minds. Both imply an intimacy, though the object/subject of said intimacy is neither implied nor provided.
Enough of This was the third and one of his final boxes. Though the text is small, it certainly carries a punch. Circled in red are three words from the caption of a cartoon, "Enough of This," next to an illustration of a heart being pierced by a three-dimensional arrow from the heavens. Well, maybe not the heavens, but certainly from a goddess-like arm. The meaning here is likely too literal to merit much discussion, but perhaps not.
That is truly what makes these boxes. You don't quite know what is literal, what is in jest or earnest, what is personal or what is entirely fictitious. Like the best of stories, this collection of boxes isn't neatly wrapped in a bow with a fact-checked object label hung next to each. Theyu're here, waiting for an audience. Waiting to be questioned and examined, laughed at, marveled at or not-too-quickly dismissed.
It wasn't love at first sight. I had seen plays at Theatreworks for 25 years. I knew Murray's work. As an audience member, I knew it as exacting, precise, intentional, and clear. Later I knew his writing as well - authentic, human, intelligent, never condescending, persuasive, provocative, and clean. As a colleague, his writing was nearly impossible to edit because he wrote so lyrically - beautiful narratives that required every word to fit together just so.
Then I saw his boxes. Rough, crafty - almost a counterculture aesthetic, if that included golliwogs or genitalia - colorful, silly, disjointed. None of this seemed familial to the work I'd seen onstage.
Until it did. Each box, carefully and thoughtfully assembled, distinctly shows the effects of his painterly director's touch. The most successful keep me coming back for further examination, like a well-written play.
But ultimately, I'm enamored by these because they give little hints into the mind of my very private friend. I'm certain there are secrets revealed in these I'll never understand. They fly way under my radar, but they're not for me, anyway. Still, I like knowing he bought a book of fungi drawings in a bookstore in Taos. I like seeing souvenirs from his family disassembled and looking for homes in new stories.
I liked exploring his studio one weekend with my toddler who unearthed a veritable treasure of goodies: flying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys, mini sombreros, plastic planes, wooden arms, dolls' shoes - and that was without digging past the first box. There were also bits of text and handwritten notes without names or dates, all of which it seemed uncouth to explore before they found their way into boxes.
These curated scenes represent to me much of what I liked about Murray, but also remind me of how much I didn't know. His son, Orion Ross, said it perfectly, "they give a carefully guarded, playful and cryptic glimpse into some of his multiple private sides—sort of a psychographic peepshow." There's something quite charming about a peepshow, not too naughty but not drowned in earnestness either.
Murray's boxes are funny, smart, provocative, unapologetic and they'll give you as much as you're willing to take. Take a moment or two, ask a few questions aloud or to yourself, have a glass of wine with dinner and let those ideas percolate. Get lost for aminute in his imagination. It will be well worth the time.
Caitlin Green received an MA in art history from the Sotheby's Institute of Art in London. She is passionate about performing and visual arts, but second, of rouse, to raising her two wickedly funny, utterly charming, boys.
Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New*. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print. p. 257.