Joe Lichy is captivated by Ruth Murray’s unnerving paintings in Kerfuffle

Painting is alive and kicking thank you very much. It’s still the most malleable and personal way to get your vision of things across. If you need proof (and even if you don’t), be sure to visit Kerfuffle at The North Wall Arts Centre, an exhibition by Royal College of Art graduate Ruth Murray.

Murray has a lot to say, but if you did want to pigeonhole her work then you’d find it under the label of ‘wonderful and frightening’.

Melted clay covered teens, sojourns in the forest trapped in polythene bags and rituals gone wrong are just some of the themes. And while the paintings aren’t above criticism – they have an element of staged-ness that won’t be everyone’s bag – you’d be hard pressed not to admire Murray’s technical mastery and dark humour.

This is painting that little-Johnny-aged-four-and-three-quarters couldn’t do. On the other hand it exploits the language of childhood to great effect: there’s all that delight in getting covered in mess; getting tangled up and hiding.

It’s the trials of adolescence though, where Murray’s really at home, and poignantly the artist tells me that several of the works in the show are of her younger sister, painted over several years.

Murray describes growing up as a period of agitation with unknown limits: “… the feelings of alienation and paranoia associated with misunderstood experiments and rituals, the psychology of the situation.”

These aren’t just empty words. The painting Obby Oss for example, is all Green Man and folk dancing, but relocated down the woods where something unbridled and truly scary is taking place.

Then there’s Spam Man: a boy made of reformed meat surrounded by young women – are they putting him together or dismembering him? I think of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and I ask if Murray considers herself a Romantic: “I’m from Birmingham where they have some lovely pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Barber Institute.

“Their use of symbolism and narrative was definitely a big inspiration for me.”

So what about the pre-Raphaelite whimsy Hylas and the Nymphs that just last week Manchester Art Gallery removed and then swiftly rehung amidst the #MeToo storm? It’s easy to see how John William Waterhouse’s naked femmes fatales got embroiled in the argument – it’s a Victorian male fantasy after all. Tellingly, Murray, who now lives and works in Manchester, writes it all off as a media stunt.

She mostly paints young women, but rather than being political per se, hers is very much a personal vision – something painting still does best.

Ruth Murray’s Kerfuffle is at The North Wall Arts Centre, South Parade, Oxford until February 17.