On a recent Sunday afternoon in a Bushwick art studio, I took my top off, changed into a paper-thin, full-body Tyvek suit, and took a seat in front of a tall, blond man twirling a pair of surgical scissors. He cut off the top of the disposable suit and then wrapped my chest with clear tape, effectively pinning my arms to my sides. “This is starting to get a little too Dexter,” he said, before covering my neck with alginate.
John Murray, a sculptor who plans to participate in Bushwick Open Studios this fall along with the other 60 or so artists in the building, was making a lifecast of my neck using sodium alginate, a material that can be applied directly to a model’s body. While the gooey substance sets, it captures an incredible amount of detail (in my case, hairs standing on end). According to Murray, even the ever-so-slighty raised skin of a tattoo will appear in the alginate lifecast. And he should know: Murray once casted his own dick. Yes, that’s right. As a Christmas gift for an ex-girlfriend, he cast marble nuts and had a real diamond installed at the tip of the transparent, pink penis.
Murray was being somewhat modest when he described lifecasting as a “straightforward process.” To prevent the water-based, nontoxic alginate from dehydrating, he had to cast it with soft, plaster bandages. Then, he poured gypsum (a soft, almost powdery mineral) mixed with a little bit of water, into the plaster alginate shell to make a plaster cast. Then, he brushed rubber on top, and constructed a plaster bandage shell to safely hold the new rubber mold, which Murray said will “last for years.”
“I could just make artwork out of these, no problem. A lot of people do that, a lot of artists have done that, but I’m John Murray, and I’m like, ‘Well, it would be more badass to have it be resin,” Murray told me. He added that he tries to capture the “aura” of his subjects. “I like the idea of there being this transparency of light shining through the energy of the sculpture,” he explained. “I can capture that better with the resin than I can with opaque materials.”
Although resins– if they’re not used with caution– can be deadly, Murray said, they’re translucent and “fucking beautiful.” So, wearing a Tyvek suit and gas mask, he mixed liquid resin with cabosil, a thickening agent, which turned the resin into a substance with the “consistency of frosting,” one that’s resistant to the pull of gravity. He then poured the shimmering material into his rubber mold and built up the sides, forming whatever body part he happened to be working on at that moment.
Murray likes to make things more difficult for himself than they have to be. (At one point he admitted, with a hint of perceived pride, that “if some guy who does this work came into [his studio] he’d probably be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’”) He was raised on the Upper East Side by his father, a research doctor, and his mother who worked in finance. Instead of becoming an accountant or lawyer like many of his peers, Murray decided to attend the University of Michigan, where he majored in art history and was inspired by the work of Kazimir Malevich and Matthew Barney.
After graduating, he moved back in with his parents and enrolled in an introductory sculpture class at the School of Visual Arts. It only took one day for him to know that he “was going to be doing this forever.” At that point, he didn’t even know how to use a hand drill. He waited tables at the Blue Water Grill until he had enough money to rent a studio space, chopped it up into two rooms so that he could rent one out to another artist, and built everything by hand including the walls, a loft for himself to live in, and everything else down to the saw horses. He has lived in his studio loft for seven or eight years now, either washing in a basin there, showering at his gym (he exercises frequently, inspired by a passage from Plato’s Republic), or at the apartment of one of his lovers (he is polyamorous). For fun, he engages in highly technical sport, such as ice climbing.
“The more difficult the challenge, the more sophisticated the solution,” he said, adding that work that takes longer to finish “has more life in it.”
In his studio he took to metalwork, a “very cathartic, sexy experience” that feels like a “metaphor of working with the body,” and with YouTube as his primary teacher he started making mixed media pieces using metal, resin and light. Unfortunately, the metaphor was not enough. He missed working with an actual body, but the sparks, fire, toxicity and Tyvek that typified his working environment were not exactly conducive to the presence of others. “I remember thinking if I had a model in the studio I could have her wear earmuffs, and then I could do metalwork with her figure,” said Murray. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, that probably wouldn’t work.’” So, he got himself some donuts (for casting, not stress eating) and had a revelation. He was working on a mixed media lightbox portrait of a woman, trying to capture her mouth, and decided that it should be a white donut, something soft and tasty, but also bad for you. He had just finished a series of butt portraits, and “thinking about the donut as an anatomical part of a human, he started making donut panels as this kind of scatalogical, cheeky thing.”
“I started getting into casting with donuts, and I was like, ‘Ok, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll start life casting the figure,’ and that gives me my desire to work with people and work with the body, because all my work has been about using the body, and having that be something I think about a lot.”
Realizing that he could make “resin evolutions” of the life-casted body parts of real models, and collage them together with structural and decorative metalwork elements, ultimately incorporating light, was Murray’s “aha moment,” he said, and “closed the gap between knowing where [he] wanted to go and not knowing how to get there.”
“That’s how I get to like, not just be alone in the shop, hammering things, working with plastic materials, and it’s also how I get, more directly, my point across of working with the body. That’s kind of my thing; what it means to have a body, and what about it can we explore,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been this complicated, but that’s just how my mind works.”
While Murray thinks the donuts kind of look like mouths and/or assholes, which do refer to the body, they’re mostly “popular on Instagram” and have become his bread and butter (they sell). “At the end of the day, hopefully they will afford all of us some income to keep doing this stuff.” He and his assistant Ruth Irving currently have two life-sized sculptures that take three to six months to complete, two busts, including yours truly, that take about six weeks, and a 5×5-foot life box in the works.
As he continues to build his library of body parts that portray the “specific non-verbal communication that’s happening” when he creates them, he will be on the lookout for clientele and galleries interested in works cooler than his crullers. He said Hauser & Wirth and the Gladstone Gallery are high on his wish list. Ultimately, his goal is to progress art history. “The more difficult the challenge…” Indeed.
For a bonus time lapse of my own neck life cast that Murray performed for this profile, check out the video below.