Chain Gang, 1985-1986

Chain Gang is a distinctive “oil on four canvases.” It complicates the notion of the single canvas with the spread of its bat-like wings and ballooning lungs. In many of her works, including this one, Murray challenged the rectangular convention of the canvas with new edges, shapes, and lines. Chain Gang takes its title from the 1960 Sam Cooke song. The cartoonish undulation of Chain Gang—Murray grew up drawing cartoons and hoping to be an illustrator—matches the up-tempo melody of Cooke’s song. The title of the piece, however, references imprisonment and forced labor, and the tar-colored organic forms convey the seriousness and darkness of Murray’s subject.



Redefining Feminism in Modern Art

Born in the Midwest and coming of age at a time when artists were deserting Abstract Expressionism, Murray is known for her distinctively shaped canvases. She started her education in hopes of becoming a commercial illustrator, having been influenced and inspired by comics. Here, the large-scale canvases ripple, fold over themselves, and even fracture, imperfectly interlocking into one—almost like the panels of an abstract comic strip that interacts with the viewer through its shape.

The domestic symbolism of Chain Gang, its cups, chairs, spoons, and tables, represents a re-exploration of everyday objects through abstraction and a critical engagement with the history of Western still-life painting. This symbolism has largely been attributed to Murray’s personal life, as she kept practicing her art while raising children. Yet motherhood informed, not inhibited, her art: she often collaborated with her daughters for her paintings, teaching and learning at the same time. Through both her subject matter and her process of making, Murray’s art urges us to reconsider our passive and gendered associations with domestic symbols, and the assumptions they perpetuate about women and artists.

—Irmak Ersoz ‘24