With his handlebar moustache, Chaplin-esque coif and meticulous dress sense, Murray O’Grady is a distinctive young artist who speaks affably and discerningly of the pleasures of life as an aspiring charlatan. His work features in Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the ICA London until January 16.
What’s the relationship between your art and dandyism?
My heroes are all personalities like Jeff Koons and Gilbert & George – I’m continually drawn to those figures, that certain type of artist. Gilbert & George’s ‘living sculpture’, Yves Klein’s black-tie performances, Jeff Koons’ ‘it’s a wonderful life’ press photos: these all have something to do with salesmanship and camp; living as a sort of character, being trapped in a performance, but willingly so. There’s a link between dandyism and that type of artist. My work is influenced by dandyish archetypes from Willy Wonka to Michael Jackson. At the moment I’m reading about these entrepreneurial witchdoctors from nineteenth century New Orleans who developed intriguing personas – twisted translations of the European gentleman.
Is there a charlatan aspect to your sculptures?
Charlatanism always conjures up trickery, but trickery and charm are very different things. I wouldn’t have a figurine made in stone or labour over a faux-finish, painting it grey is enough. It’s about simple transformations and how you make someone want to buy into or believe in something. I’m interested in that sort of salesmanship. I always work with found objects. some of which are altered. Every surface is painted. I think of paint as makeup, it gives everything the same value, a uniform surface, another skin. For me, makeup is best when someone’s put on too much. All the colours I use are antiquated, pop colours, they have a faded freshness to them that suggests artificial aging. I try to give the things a grander history than they have: a Jiminy Cricket figurine with some breaks in the right places makes a link to classical sculpture, you can imagine it in one of Fragonard’s gardens next to a swooning lady.
Your sculptures are essentially object assemblages, but you think about them as portraits? How do they relate to these ideas about identity and myth?
My assemblages lend themselves to ideas of portraiture, but they’re not figurative. This goes back to the artists I’m interested in and back to dandyism: the sculptures paint a portrait of someone who isn’t there, they point to an absence. Absence is important, many of the most interesting people are only ‘half there’ – Warhol and Wonka… What I like most about the gallery situation is simply that you walk into a room and find something that’s been left there for you, it’s romantic! I always want to have some kind of ‘reveal’ in my work. I often start with a container or package or case, things that in most gallery situations would have been removed, they’re an important part of the theatrics. Everything’s supposed to appear transportable. It’s a bit like Andre Cadere – his work is talked about in terms of institutional critique, but I’m more interested in the romance of it, the shamanism. I use objects like cases, walking sticks or easels: you can imagine someone having carried them in, left them there and disappeared just before you arrived.
Art always suggests the person who made it: you may never see them, but often you’re hyper-aware of their mythology. It’s a strange relationship that a viewer has with the artist, I try to theatricalise that. Constructing a sculpture is akin to constructing a personality or public image, invariably assisted by a refined wardrobe, some makeup and in some cases the subtle adjustments of a good plastic surgeon.