Fellow lovers of Painting, fear not. I’ve surfaced from my year long deep-dive into the world of Contemporary Photography, finding equilibrium just as the new year looks like it’s being Painted with a new brush. First, there were the unexpected wonders of “Edvard Munch: Between The Clock and the Bed,” at The Met Breuer, the fascinating “Figuratively Speaking” at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and now with “Catherine Murphy,” the long awaited show of recent Paintings & Drawings by the singular and influential Artist and Educator1 at Peter Freeman, Inc., I can positively feel the wind of great Painting blowing through my hair once again. Well, at least my eyebrows. “Long awaited” as Ms. Murphy’s last show, “Catherine Murphy: Working Drawings” at Sargent’s Daughters, was in 2016, but the last show of her Paintings and finished Drawings, also at Peter Freeman, Inc., was back in 2013.
Over a career that now extends more than 50 years, though her style, focus, and her choice of subjects have evolved, there is one constant- an extraordinarily high level of accomplishment. It’s hard to think of another Artist who’s Paintings AND Drawings are among the finest created in each medium over that time. Both bodies of work are marvels. And, at least her more recent pieces are inspired by her dreams. Her new show, which focuses on this more recent work, is a visual tour de force- in more ways than one. No less than Artist Rod Penner told me in the Q&A I did with him last year that, in his opinion, Catherine Murphy “is in a class of her own,” among Artists he feels have been overlooked and/or are “important” today.
As I moved through the galleries I was struck by something I hadn’t noticed as a focus of her work before. Unlike, say, her early landscapes, many of the pieces on view shared the common theme of seeing & perception. Take for example the first Painting in the show, “Cherry Pie,” from 2104. It’s obviously a pie, yet even a quick look reveals it’s a Painted pie, not a “photorealistic” pie.
No matter how close, or far, you stand from it, the work remains just out of focus, as if seen at a glance or in a slightly blurry photograph, but the level of artistry brought to bear in the entire work is staggering. The crust is open, missing one section. Strange. You’d expect a slice to be missing. Looking closer I was enraptured by what I saw.
The cherries, for instance, seem to have taken Cezanne’s immortal still lives to a different level. (Not “better,” I don’t believe in those kinds of comparisons. Different.) Look at how finely the highlights and the shading are done on each one. Then look at the broken edge of the pie crust to the left- each flake is carefully and sharply delineated in a way that is positively surreal. When have you seen real pie crust look like this? Their sharpness is in contrast to the overall blurriness, as if they are the point of focus for the absent camera. Then, there’s the pie tin. It’s countless folds appear to be almost individually colored as the light plays off them so magnificently, echoed in the wonderfully realized cast shadows underneath. If we take the pie tin for a “ground,” the work strikes me as a Painting that strives to go beyond two dimensions. It wants to, at once, lie above the surface, on it, and under it- all while drawing us inside of it. These questions of seeing (What do you see? What do you expect to see?) and looking into, though a painting is a flat, thin surface, recur repeatedly in this show.
Directly across the room from it is another pie-related work, in two parts. This time, what is apparently the top of the crust is an entirely separate work, displayed next to the empty pie crust. If these were hung separately, Would we think they are a pie crust and it’s top? They could be one of Edward Burtynsky’s aerial landscape Photographs of some distant land and an aerial shot of a crater in an icy land. Still, even in this context, shown together, it seems strange. It’s hard to not see the apparent top being on a pie. I kept thinking about what’s under it. Nothing but the surface it’s laid on. As for the pie crust, itself, we’re left to imagine what’s going to go inside, while we ponder the top now being a surface instead of a top and the empty space of the pie drawing us into a space, which is in reality, flat.
Adjacent to the previous two works is “Flat Screen,” a work that depicts a lovely, Painted, sunny, outdoor scene on the titular flat screen monitor. Perhaps, it’s a screen saver given the partial text on the lower right. The window behind it is blank being mostly covered by what appears to be a window shade. The light that does come through around the shade mimics the black border around the monitor’s screen. I wonder…wouldn’t we expect see the reverse- a blank, or grey, computer screen, and the sunny outdoor scene outside of the window? It might be technology taking the place of experiencing nature via a live feed from outdoors, except that we see it’s a Painting. Is it the scene outside the window? We’ll never know. Continuing the spacial relationships, it also reminds us a monitor is flat and presents us with the illusion of 3 dimensions, like a Painting does.
In the main gallery, are two works that might seem descendants of late Monet- both depict scenes taking place on bodies of water with trees nearby. In both, we are left to ponder, and admire, the surface, what’s on top of it, and what’s being reflected on it- all handled masterfully.
The one above, “Float,” 2015, is over the top, literally and figuratively. It continues the line of her early landscapes, which were painted outdoors. In 2013, she said, “Any Painting that you see is outdoors is a really slow Painting. Because I have to wait for the sun. I have to wait for the weather…2” “I got very interested in things that look spatial, but are not spatial,” she said in 2014. As you look at “Float,” it’s a bit like looking down the rabbit hole. I almost wondered if I was underneath the water looking up at the surface and the foliage above it, but the yellow leaves would seem to indicate we’re looking down on it. The floats and the leaves floating on the water provide a fulcrum between the two worlds- outer and inner. Again, she has created a scene of extraordinary depth on a simple, flat canvas, a bit like the feeling I got from “Cherry Pie.”
Then, “…I started dreaming Paintings, and thinking about Paintings differently. It was the beginning of a whole thing, giving myself permission to do it in a new way. that is really what stops everyone in the world: because of an idea of who you are you’re afraid to break your rules3.” So, more recently, she’s moved to scenes that are “smaller” closer, or more intimate, like those seen in most of this show. She says that after being inspired by her dreams, she then sets up the scene in her studio.
Half the show is devoted to Catherine Murphy’s amazing Drawings, all of which are these indoor scenes. And, I mean amazing. Like this one-
Again, the mastery of rendering surfaces is just stunning- the shading of each wire mezmerizes. Then, there’s the beautiful wooden floor- all Drawn in graphite. Once again, the feeling of depth is present. We can’t tell how high the pile of wire is from that floor. Is it one insanely long cable, or more? If it’s more, despite the yards of spare cable lying around, those two ends are never going to reach each other. It’s a very daring piece. If you want to test your technique, and your eye? Take a shot at Drawing something like this.
Catherine Murphy, long seen as a champion of figurative/representational Art, surprisingly said she’s “a compulsive Abstract Expressionist.” While I think she may have been referring to the technique of applying paint, I filed that in the back of my mind, though yes, there are passages here and there in this show that do qualify. Perhaps, none more so than “Studio Wall,” 2014, Graphite on paper. Without it’s title or the name of the Artist, one might think it’s by Cy Twombly. The more I looked at it the more I couldn’t believe it’s ONLY graphite on paper.
Standing in front of it for the longest time, it looked for all the world to have been Painted. So, I asked Catherine Murphy through the gallery how the background was done. She said, “I just keep adding graphite until the tone is correct. There is not much actual “white” (although the wall I was drawing from was painted white). What “white” there is, is the paper.” The fact that there is so little white of the paper left is what amazes me. The shading is so brilliantly done that no matter how close you get to it, the background looks like Paint.
Since she said that her dreams inspire many of her works these days, I asked her if she dreams in color, or black & white, as the resulting works are in both. She replied, “In the dreams the color suggests itself, but I could be dreaming color for all I know. Some things have to be in color and some things have to be in black and white. But one way or another they are both about color.” Her Drawings are unique, whole works unto themselves that have nothing to do with her Paintings. They stand alongside her Paintings as “different but equal,” so to speak. Well? Except for this one-
In “Painting Drawing Painting,” 2017, she seems to be playing with that, though, blurring the boundaries between the two medium. Again, making us question what we’re seeing- What’s “Drawn?” What’s Painted?” Being oil on canvas, it’s all Painted, but much of it “looks” Drawn. It’s also fascinating that she’s left part of it, apparently, unfinished, while another part, along the right white border, appears to have been erased or removed, something she doesn’t do in her “real” Paintings. My takeaway was that in this work, she’s giving Drawing the same “status” as Painting, which is traditionally the more valued medium, which also serves to reinforce their importance in her oeuvre as equals.
“Stacked,” 2017, one of the three newest Painting on view (“Painting Drawing Painting” being another, “Becalmed,” seen further on, the third), creates the optical illusion that the stacks of books are suspended in mid-air. When I saw this, I wondered if Catherine Murphy had seen my apartment in her dreams. Then, alas, mine haven’t levitated. Yet.
“I’m avoiding the comfort of realism. The pillow you know. The bottle you know. The landscape you know…I want to confront,” she said in 2013. The masterful, knock-out, “Floribunda,” 2015, is a classic example of that. It also speaks to what we see. What, exactly, are the broken dishes lying on, or seen against? The two patterns of whatever it is and the dishes are so similar it takes effort to see where one ends and the other begins as the eye moves across the canvas. It’s almost M.C. Escher-esque. Yes, they, positively confront each other. A detail that caught me in this, among so many others, is the “marrow” of the broken yellowish cup in the lower left corner.
Catherine Murphy has always followed her own star, regardless of what the rest of the Art world was doing or favoring. Marketing ploys, like “photorealism,” have proved to be an albatross around the necks, and careers, of any number of Artists, which has only served to delay (hopefully not permanently) the proper assessment of their work and accomplishment. Modern & Contemporary Realistic, Representational and Figurative Art has been slowly coming back, mostly in the galleries, and in museums elsewhere, but not the NYC museums, beyond, Kerry James Marshall in late 2016, early 2017.
Looking at their websites, Catherine Murphy is in, at least, 3 of NYC’s “Big Five” Museums (as I called them recently). The Met’s site shows 2 Paintings (acquired in 1986 and 1991), The Whitney’s shows 1 Painting (acquired in 1973), and 2 Drawings (acquired in 1993), and MoMA’s shows 2 Drawings, (acquired in 1987 and 2004). It’s a start, but one that hasn’t been followed up on in 14 years, plus. Of those three, only MoMA lists Catherine Murphy’s work as having appeared in an exhibition, both times in group shows, once when she was selected by Artist Vic Muniz, the show’s curator.
Yes, many have put her in the category of “Realism,” “Representational” and “Figurative” Art, I know, but Catherine Murphy’s work seems to me to stand aside of all of those categories because there are bits and pieces of any number of influences, periods, and styles going on in her work. Interestingly, she said in 2013 that there isn’t a style of Art she doesn’t like, because there is always someone doing something good in it. Elsewhere she has shown a familiarity with contemporary Photographers Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. I have a feeling along with not being afraid “to break your own rules,” as she said, it’s that range that helps her stand apart.
While shows like the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum “Triennial” are major events in the Art world that draw big crowds and gain instant recognition for a number of their younger participants, it seems to me that the time has come for such a show that features established Artists that have, as yet, not received their due in a major Museum show. The point is not to “shame” the Museums, but to give these Artists some of the exposure, attention and recognition, I for one, feel is long overdue.
Casting around for recommendations to be included in such a show (not to mention a Retrospective of her own), you need to look no further than Catherine Murphy.
*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Time Passes Slowly,” by Bob Dylan from “New Morning.” Catherine Murphy has said that her Paintings are about the passing of time. In lieu of the album version I would like to include, Mr Dylan may be seen and heard performing an early version of it, with George Harrison, here.
My thanks to Catherine Murphy, and Alexander Whitehead of Peter Freeman, Inc.
This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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