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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy's Laments Explores the Use of Oil in Art

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, whose art often deals with environmental themes, has been on a mission to purge herself of oil-based materials. But boycotting oil is next to impossible. Next May, Murphy plans to leave her massive Five Points studio behind and embark on a cross-country journey in a tiny home (see Could Tiny Homes Solve a Big Problem in Denver?," our May 22 cover story). The Westword MasterMind will be chronicling her travels on this blog.

Before she embarks on that journey, she has planned "one last hurrah" in the world of large-scale installation. Her new show Lament, opening Saturday, October 11 at the Leon gallery, mourns the use of oil in a wide variety of media: paints, photographic chemicals, digital technologies and sculpture. But instead of abandoning oil, she's making work with it. Westword recently spoke with Murphy to learn more about her tiny-house plans and her new show. See also: Could Tiny Houses Solve a Big Problem in Denver?

Westword: Talk about the upcoming show.

Lauri Lynxxe Murphy: Oh, my god, where do I begin? [Laughs.] It's funny, because usually I have a pretty tight topic, but this one, even though it is a tight topic, feels broad because there are so many awful angles to explore. Basically, it's kind of like a lot of the work has to do with oil and plastics and exploring the different materialities of each of these things and our current addiction to them.

What's the work like?

So there is a lot of very sad, dark art. I'm working with the materials themselves. For a long time, I worked in resin, and I really wanted to turn away from it because it's so bad for the environment, and then I sort of had this moment where I was like, what do I think that I'm saving by not using this material, because it still exists? It's still there. I can still go to the store and buy it. It's still being manufactured. It's this giving in to exploring the material itself, you know? For example, some of the paintings that I'm doing are made with bitumen.


It was actually used in print-making for a long time, but it's also what's running through the oil sand pipeline, you know? The Tar Sands themselves are made from bitumen.

It came to this point when I was working, where I've been working for a while with pretty natural materials, but you still have to glue things, for example. You still have to address different aspects when you're making things. You can't get away from using these materials, as much as you want to.

Oil paints trace back to petroleum. Print-making supplies trace back to petroleum. Plastics trace back to petroleum. It's like, to try to live a petroleum free existence, it sucks.

How does the tiny house fit into all of this? As a result of working on the tiny house, we're learning to question every material that we're using. You come to realize in our modern day, it's not really possible to completely get away from these materials. Plastic drinking cups: petroleum. When you start to look at how many different things trace back to petroleum, it becomes this panicky moment when you realize, "Oh, god, I can't escape." It makes me think of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, you know. I feel like Tippi Hedren surrounded by all these horrible products I don't want to use.

Read on for more from Lauri Lynnxe Murphy.

But you're using them anyhow?

It's sort of guiltily embracing the fact that everything I use is going to somehow come from a bad place and trying to make work that resonates with that materiality. I feel that material carries meaning and carries history being pulled from the ground, in whatever way it was, and being manipulated, in whatever way it was, to become the form that we need.

But then it makes you think, too, like, well, if this one substance is so endlessly mutable, what about other substances? If we are creative enough to take this viscous black fluid that we pull from the earth and turn it into thousands of different products, why is that ingenuity not available to us in another form. I'm sure that it is. It's just that this is currently the form that makes the money, so this is currently the form that we spend our time and dollars researching and exploring.

In thinking about painting and materiality and these histories of abstract expressionism and the idea of the medium as this pure thing and the material as this pure thing: What happens when you start looking at the political and environmental frameworks around that?

When I was in grad school, everybody was like, "But you're making work about the environment, so you can't use things. You shouldn't use things that are harming the environment." And I fully believe that. I'm fully on board with that idea. That idea is much harder than someone would think. The idea of purity, in how we approach what we're doing or what we're making or what we're using, goes to show you why it's so difficult for people to get off the grid, because you're surrounded by stuff. It's not just gas. It's not just driving less.

So say you make your decision: "Well, I'm not going to drive anymore because I don't want to use petroleum." Well, then you have to examine every other thing in your life right down to the lights that you turn on -- and not just the energy that powers the lights but what the lights are made of, what the wiring is covered in.

If you start taking apart just the plastic in your life, start looking at just the plastic as one example of a petroleum product.... Even our food isn't safe. Everything's tainted, even photographic processes.


I work in photography a lot and have some large format photographs in this show -- and I'm working digitally. Come on. How am I escaping oil if I'm working digitally? I'm using plastic. The coating on the paper, all of it, everything traces back to petroleum. So we're kidding ourselves in a way. I've chosen to work with elements that look like oil and mimic oil but actually are oil at the same time. It's the irony of going, "I'm making something that looks like oil for this sculpture made of plastic," when the substances that I'm working with actually trace back to petroleum, too. The plastic itself is oil. It's inescapable. It's amazing to me how inescapable it is.

So many of these ideas are really vague and are hard to discuss, but they're in the work. A lot of times, it's difficult for me to discuss until all the work is finished, and it's not, but this idea of the earth as a body, you know, and you think of oil being the blood that runs through the veins of that body and the idea that we're constantly pulling it out of the earth and then giving it back to the earth in other forms. It's just this continual cycle of drawing it out and depleting the resource itself, but also returning the resource in a form that is also harmful.

Like with oil spills, people are like, "Well, it's natural. It came out of the earth." But it doesn't belong there. It's like, "Oh, your blood is natural. We pulled it out of your body and dumped it on top of you. You should be fine." [Laughs,.] A little dark. It's an element that runs through my work all the time too.

Read on for more from Lauri Lynnxe Murphy.

Talk about what the show is going to look like. What are viewers going to experience when they show up?

I'm kind of exploring materials from all different sides. I started this by saying I'm working with a topic that is so much more broad than my initial explorations made me realize. At first, I was like, I'm working with oils so everything's going to be black and white. Then I realized, no, everything's got oil in it. Everything. Our clothing. Everything.

There is a lot of color in this show, too. There is a lot of strange, bright rainbow kinds of color. There are several large sculptures made out of bits of animals, made of either taxidermy forms or bits of actual parts of animals.

Can you talk about the photos in the show?

One of the largest bodies of work in the show is a series of photographs I did that are super-powerful and bright, but they're macro-photos of the most American substances I could think of, which are sugar and oil. So they're petroleum jelly and petrified cotton candy. They're super-colorful and bright, but when you think of what those substances are, they're also super-disgusting. They just look like these beautiful abstract photos, but there is more going on in them than that.

There are several works, sculptures and small paintings, with the bitumen and tar. The paintings are of icebergs made out of the bitumen.

I'm curious. Where does this leave you as an artist -- personally, emotionally, psychologically?

It's one big shit-storm. [Laughs.] It's really funny. As I'm working on this show, I'm really conscious of the fact that next year I won't be able to work this way. I'll be in the tiny house. It feels weirdly like a last hurrah with large sculptures for a little while. Which is funny. I'm not predictive about what I'm going to make ever, because I don't ever know. But I'm giving myself this enormous limit in the near future and gearing up for that. It's really interesting to be working on this show while also working on the tiny house.

What are your next steps as an artist?

In a way, I don't know how to answer that question because I don't ever know where I'm going as an artist. I'm just following the muse wherever she leads me, hoping it's not off of a cliff, hoping my muse in benevolent, you know? It's kind of funny. I think that far less than when I was younger, I'm way more in the dark about what I'm going to do next, and I'm really excited by that. I think that my making has become a lot more spontaneous than it used to be and a lot more exploratory. It's kind of exciting because when I was a painter, I made paintings. Now that I've just embraced the idea of anything being a possibility, I don't know what I'm going to do, ever. It's a good place to be. I think. I'm comfortable with it. It doesn't bother me to not know what I'm doing next.

Lament opens Saturday night, October 11, at Leon, 1112 East 17th Avenue, where it will run through November 9. For more information, go to leongallery.squarespace.com or call 303-832-1599.

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