Chance Murray: Strange Clouds of Smoke
Horace Williams House
Closes Feb. 27

Chance Murray doesn’t want his paintings to creep you out. True, the occasionally dismantled bodies and externalized organs in his show, Strange Clouds of Smoke, might make your stomach twinge. But they’re so integral to visual jokes that viewers might only emit a chuckle and allow the twinge to double as appetite.

And true, the captions and titles that he distributes across most paintings’ surfaces, in a tipsy, borderline asemic grid of floating lowercase letters, might evoke a ransom note or serial killer’s communiqué more than a preschooler’s scrawled helices of letters, or a message that magically coalesces from an array of alphabet magnets on a refrigerator door.

But Murray’s realm is nonetheless fantastic, and almost never threatening. Overall, Murray is notably generous. He’s given a lot of time and labor to other artists in recent years, hosting salon shows at his barn space in Cedar Grove. His 21 surreal paintings, featuring thick buildups of pigment and media, are imbued with a humor not so much dark as stained.

Many of Murray’s paintings, rather than being one-frame cartoons, more resemble pages torn from a rural gothic novel or stills taken from an underground movie’s best scene. There’s something of The Far Side in the work of Murray, who self-identifies as an animator, but his drawing is in the R. Crumb and Philip Guston tradition, and his laughs always have a sick edge.

Many of Murray’s works are not so much composed as flung at the canvas from several feet awayto their benefit. The chicken in “Chicken Shit” looks like it’s been splattered on the windshield, caught out of flight in an archaeopteryx sprawl, a death image formed nevertheless from the last vital pulse of life.

Murray’s kinetic excess of paint and media occasionally looks a bit self-conscious, the flings too carefully placed, but for the most part they bring to mind things that been left outside for a long time, desiccating and decaying in the elements, gradually commingling with the surfaces beneath them. These are visually fecund works, reminders that the glisten of a lover’s eye has the same wet shine as an evisceration.

These agglomerated figures and scenes are set against flat, inert backgrounds, occasionally using a stage-like perspective. Usually there’s just a blackish ochre cloud or haze, depthless, implying no location rather than a darkened one. The players in these sceneshumans, dogs, chickens, an abbreviated opossumare glopped and built up upon the surface in red, black and white, incorporating a huge variety of mixed media: sticks, hardware store adhesives, a beehive and dead bees, doll parts, pennies and lots of paper pulp.

Probably the grandest of the works in this show is “Dog eats Lighter/Hot dog,” a two-panel cartoon painting. On the left side, a dog approaches a food bowl with a cigarette lighter in it. An arrow points from the lighter to the dog’s mouth. On the right side the dog is aflame, guts exploding from the lighter in its belly. It’s a violent, silly painting. The queasiness of the dog’s gastrointestinal explosion combines with the frankfurter reference to perfectly frame the painting’s humor. After all, so many of us love eating hot dogs, even while cracking jokes about how mysteriously disgusting they are.

Murray’s usage of text makes for a bifurcated viewing experience. You break off from looking at the painting to try to read it. Sometimes the message is straightforward, roughly but closely following horizontal lines across the backgroundbut sometimes it strays from linearity and breaks into open-field Situationism.

In “Untitled #3,” I was able to assemble the sentence “Dog walking meets stranger in forest” despite a few missing and extraneous letters that made me want to read the words “near,” “fear” and “angry” as well. Vaguely figurative shapes interrupting the horizontal flow of the lettering read as the dog and the stranger, creating a subverted rebus effect. This flipping back and forth between viewing and reading establishes a distance between the actual image and what the image is ofwhich calibrates the darkness of dark humor.

Murray’s show closes Sunday. If you miss this one, it’s likely that there will be other opportunities to see the work of this prolific 21-year-old artist.