Catherine Murphy’s Observational Paintings Find the Strange in the Ordinary


Catherine Murphy is one of our great artists. During a career that began in 1971, she never stigmatized herself, relied on a format, worked in series, or produced signature works, which makes her unique. She is an observational painter who does not come back to the same well, which is practically unheard of in art. What sets her work apart even more from other observational artists is that her paintings are both eerie and emotionally charged.

A doormat in winter; an open suitcase with two carefully ironed and folded shirts; two clear plastic bags full of clothes, sitting on a broken desk chair in some corner – there is nothing fancy about Murphy’s subjects. And yet, there is something inexplicably disturbing about his paintings and drawings. It is this aspect of her work – her particularizations of the ordinary – that is at the heart of why I think she has become an unparalleled figure in contemporary art.

As a longtime admirer of Murphy’s work and author of his only monograph, Catherine murphy (2016), with a preface by Svetlana Alpers, I was once again overwhelmed by the singularity of vision she exuded in her exhibition Catherine Murphy: recent work, at Peter Freeman, Inc. (November 12, 2021 – January 8, 2022). While the uniqueness of light and stage is true of her work since the start of her career, in this exhibition of nine oil paintings and four graphite drawings, she appears to have pushed into new and disturbing territory, linked to vulnerability and aging. – a subject that few American artists other than Jasper Johns have approached with serenity.

Catherine Murphy, “Flight” (2020), oil on canvas, 60 x 49 3/4 inches

Formally, Murphy does a number of things that set her apart from other observational painters. Most importantly, she doesn’t use a one-to-one scale to paint what she sees. Rather than adhere to this formula, which has been a mainstay of painting from life, she enlarges the scale, with the two largest paintings in the current exhibition measuring five by five feet. By squaring everything, it improves the relationship between sight and subject.

The subject’s relationship to scale shifts from painting to painting, with “Packed” (2018) – an aerial view of two striped button-down shirts of different colors folded neatly into a suitcase – occupying an area of ​​perception where we cannot. not sure how far we are from the suitcase. The frontal view suggests that we are physically quite close to the shirts, as we are looking directly into the suitcase. Why have we stopped watching so carefully, are we inclined to wonder? It is in this moment of questioning that Murphy’s paintings reach another level. We’re not just looking in the suitcase, as the scale suggests that something else is going on. Have we just opened it or are we about to close it?

The connection between our body and what we look at is Murphy’s innovation in observational painting; it always establishes a visceral connection between viewer and subject, which in the paintings “Flight” (2020) and “Kitchen Door” (2021), comes up against the possibility of what might happen next.

In “Flight,” we are placed at the top of a carpeted staircase and look at a belted checkerboard robe that sits downstairs. Compositionally, the stairs start at the bottom edge of the painting, rising to over half of the area, with the robe just fitting into the remaining space along the top. Everything is carefully calibrated, but none of it seems artificial.

Catherine Murphy, “Night Watch” (2018), graphite on paper, 23 1/16 x 37 15/16 inches

Apparently standing at the top of the stairs, looking at the robe, we feel like we are inside the painting. While many observational painters make the viewer feel like a detached observer, even an innocent voyeur or witness, Murphy draws us into a situation while inviting us to understand what is going on. Who’s got the bathrobe? Why is he downstairs? Does anyone throw dirty laundry down the stairs because it’s easier than getting down a stuffed basket?

Once you see the whole picture, you start to notice other aspects of it that grab your attention more. This is truly one of Murphy’s masteries. It can make a fluffy carpet blurry. There is no shorthand in his paintings. Everything – from the fuzziness of the carpet to its uneven color and the apparent stains of use – is there in the job. As we refocus and our attention shifts, at least that spectator has been brought back to the possibility of falling down the stairs, joining the slouching bathrobe. By making everything relevant in the painting, Murphy forces us to look around, putting us in a more precarious position because we momentarily haven’t been paying attention to where we are standing.

This heightened state of awareness also places Murphy’s paintings on another plane of apprehension and interaction. She achieves this in part thanks to her remarkable ability to mimic the surface of anything she paints, whether it’s the fuzzy patterned wallpaper in “Prequel” (2021) or the faded green leather armrests of a Office chair well used in “Bags of Rags” (2019), which, as a meditation on mortality and time, is one of the most powerful and calm paintings in this fascinating exhibition.

Catherine Murphy, “Kitchen Door” (2021), oil on canvas, 52 1/4 x 60 inches

In “Bags of Rags”, two large, transparent trash bags full of clothes are stacked on a green leather office chair that has seen better days. We don’t know the circumstances, which is at the heart of our work experience. The chair has been pushed into a corner and we appear to be standing in front, contemplating what is in front of us.

Who are these clothes and why have they been stuffed into plastic bags, as if they were no longer needed? Are they given to a thrift store? What about the stained leather chair that is stained a faded green? Just as I think “Flight” is about vulnerability and the fear of falling, something that concerns the elderly, “Bags of Rags” is about the remains and obsolescence of a broken chair. One of the strengths of this painting – and there is a lot, starting with the way everything is painted – is that Murphy never directs our thinking. It is the things themselves that hold our attention, even as they evoke our future.

Whether in painting or drawing, Murphy seamlessly merges the objectivity of looking closely and directly with different levels of subjectivity. His process is always at the service of the eye, and we never see bloom or mark a signature. She’s particularly sensitive to the surface feel of something, whether it’s the texture of the striped cotton shirts in “Packed” or the mottled and possibly bruised skin of a young woman’s bare legs in “Head to Toe.” “(2018).

Catherine Murphy, “Torn” (2020), graphite on paper, 30 x 29 1/4 inches

The angle of the composition and the cropping are essential parts of his investigation, with each painting giving us a different take on a specific thing, the frontal view of the patterned back of a camouflage jacket in “Camo” (2020) or the four angles seen by a surveillance camera in the graphite drawing of the tour de force “Night Watch” (2018), which reproduces this strange and supernatural light of a camera filming the perimeter of a house at night.

I think one of the reasons Murphy isn’t more widely celebrated is that his work isn’t hip or cool. The views are not theatrical and dramatic, as they are in Edward Hopper, who was a clumsy painter and a great artist. The handling of Murphy’s paint isn’t overtly dramatic, but it is breathtaking, as it seems capable of recreating any type of surface, from worn leather, to large plastic buckets filled with water, to the perforated rubber doormat in “Kitchen Door” (2021). While “Flight” expresses the fear of falling, “Kitchen Door” conveys the anxiety of slipping on a winter night, starting with the moment you leave your house and step out into the world, while “Night Watch” speaks of slipping. ‘a sense of vulnerability. and the need for protection.

Murphy depicts the doormat as a trapezoid rising from the bottom edge of the painting and tilting forward. The tilt angle and close-up view suggests the viewer is standing inside, about to step out. The inclined plane of the doormat seems to predict the future, while also emphasizing the anxiety one can have at the thought of falling, especially if you are feeling frail or vulnerable. It is to this state of our physical being that Murphy speaks. By choosing a subject that is literally underfoot, and paying attention to it, as well as the path piled up in snow and stone, she shatters the illusion of security that many believe will never change. His sensitivity to aging and the feeling of defenselessness that can flood all of us is unique and original, especially in today’s art world and his cult of signature styles, which can be seen as a bulwark. misguided against the passage of time. The art world should do the right thing and honor Murphy’s greatness.

Catherine Murphy: recent work continues at Peter Freeman, Inc. (140 Grand Street, Manhattan), until January 8, 2022.

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