Born in Chicago, Elizabeth Murray studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Mills College in Oakland, California, in the 1960s. In a vividly evocative description, her paintings have been spoken of as "a collision between order and disorder." In "Terrifying Terrain," Murray effectively mates deliberate design with happenstance and disjointed forms with an underlying structure, merging the artistic freedom of the action painters with the clean essentials of the Minimalists. The result is an exhilarating jigsaw of overlapping layers and shifting planes that coalesce into a shallow, three-dimensional wall relief.
"Terrifying Terrain" was inspired by a rock-climbing trip in Montana. Murray translates the strong visual, tactile, and psychological moments of this experience into paint by creating a shaped canvas that embodies the rugged terrain she encountered. The surface of the work is highly irregular and uneven, with overlapping planes, conveying the mountainous Montana landscape. While climbing over multiple layers of rock, the artist recalls that small pieces of rock were continually breaking off and falling down around her. This precarious situation was translated into the addition of small raised pieces to the surface of the canvas to resemble the falling rock. The opening in the middle of the canvas is meant to simulate the experience a climber would have looking down into a ravine.
As is a common strategy in many of her works, Murray also fuses elements of the real world with abstraction. Here, a bright red dress floats incongruously over the center of the dark green landscape, adding a surreal note and suggesting a hidden layer of meaning. Such speculation is encouraged by the artist, who, characteristically, incorporates several themes into a single work. The long, skinny sleeves of the dress wrap their way around the periphery of the irregular canvas, holding together the fragmented pieces of the landscape, both literally and figuratively. Like her contemporaries Jennifer Bartlett and Susan Rothenberg, Murray reasserts the importance of narrative content within the abstract idiom. This painting is a major work by an artist who received critical acclaim in the 1980s and gained popular appeal in the 1990s.