Painting is not photography and photography is not painting. Both with their limitations, painting not reaching the clarity of photography and photography lacking the lushness possible with the brush. This has been a notion basically segregating the two since roughly the 1940’s. Though if it is assumed to be true, someone might want to tell John Everett Millais or, for that matter Robert Bateman. Masters of ‘photorealistic’ technique bending the parameters of what is meant to be possible. An artist putting their own mark on the form is Britain’s Ruth Murray.
Murray was sprung from fairly humble origins, born in the industrial city of Birmingham, UK in 1987. Graduating with a Masters of Painting at the prestigious Royal College of Art in 2008, she hit the art scene with a vengeance racking up an impressive 16 solo shows between graduation in 2008 and 2021, between a breathless schedule of no less than 63 group exhibitions between 2009 and 2020 all over the world.
A true creative as well as a prodigious master of technique, it is difficult to relate Murray’s work to anything else, it is so much her own. With a strong grounding in photorealism reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites, also from Britain, Murray adds elements of space and depth with painstaking detail that still looks effortless, attention drawn by vivid colors and shades, particularly reds and whites. Murray is also one of the very few portrait artists to truly nail human skin tone, her subjects not only closely resembling living flesh, as opposed to lines on paper, Murray breaks out of the creamy alabaster skin so popular in the Georgian and Victorian periods of British portraiture, which dominate the London’s National Portrait Gallery. Not only does Murray paint models who are POCs – like in “Everything Is Green” – even her European subjects have a variance in tone running from predictably pale to much more tanned, to the point the term ‘white’ really doesn’t apply, light brown far more accurate.
While not stated publicly, Murray’s work carries a whiff of politics, many of her subjects and posings speaking volumes. Not so much about how Murray thinks so much as how she doesn’t. No one could accuse her of being a Conservative, and most of her portraits carry some fairly heavy symbolism in terms of economy and class. Sure to be important issues, and possibly sore spots, for an artist from a historically working class-area of Britain. This is most clearly seen in her piece “The Bosses Daughters.”
Vividly realized, the scene takes place in the study of a clearly lavish house, the daughters in question, one a teenager, the other a little younger, sitting in front of a massive picture window with lush forest beyond the limited view. Every element, down the design in the stained-glass section set above each of the three sections of the window structure, jaw-droopingly detailed. Beyond the lucid composition of the entire scene, closer examination reveals a sense of the gilded cage, the girls depicted trapped in the luxury in which they are living, the natural working to be seen through the window as something else the family owns, to be seen but not experienced. There is already the notion of a ‘trophy wife.’ Distasteful as it is, could there be such a thing as ‘trophy children’? Murray invites the viewer to consider the possibility.
Born in the far north, T.S. McNeil was attending art galleries before he could walk. Earning concurrent degrees in Art History and Political Science, he has written on Arts and Culture both in print and online since 2002, starting while still in college. He lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog, and firmly believes that Marie-Gabrielle Capet was criminally underrated.