Catherine Murphy’s watch panels find the ordinary weird

Catherine Murphy is one of our great artists. Over the course of her career that began in 1971, she has never branded herself, never relied on formatting, worked in series, or produced standout work, which makes her unique. She is an observational painter who does not return to the same well, which is unheard of in art. What sets her work apart from other artists is that her paintings are whimsical and emotionally loaded.

mop in winter open bag with two neatly folded and pressed shirts; Two plastic bags stuffed with clothes, and you’re sitting on a broken office chair in a nondescript corner—nothing unusual about Murphy’s themes. However, there is something inexplicably disturbing in her paintings and drawings. It is this aspect of her work – her idiosyncrasies – that is central to why I believe she has become an unrivaled figure in contemporary art.

As a longtime fan of Murphy’s work and author of her only book, Kathryn Murphy (2016), with an introduction by Svetlana Albers, once again felt the uniqueness of the vision she achieved in her exhibition Catherine Murphy: The Last Work, in Peter Freeman, Inc. (from November 12, 2021 to January 8, 2022). While the specificity of light and spectacle has been true of her work since the beginning of her career, in this exhibition of nine oil paintings and four graphite drawings she appears to have been pushed into new and ominous territory, one of frailty and old age. A topic that few American artists other than Jasper Johns have taken up quietly.

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

Formally, Murphy does a number of things that set her apart from other painters. The most important is that it does not use a one-to-one scale to plot what you see. Rather than sticking to this formula, which had been a mainstay of painting from life, she expanded the scale, with the two largest paintings in the current gallery measuring five by five square feet. By squaring everything, they reinforce the relationship between vision and subject matter.

The subject’s relationship to volume shifts from sketch to drawing, with “Packed” (2018) – a top view of two different-colored striped shirts neatly folded into a bag – occupying a perceptual area where we’re not quite sure how we’re far from the bag. The front view indicates that we are physically close to the shirts, as we are looking directly at the bottom of the bag. Why have we stopped looking so intently, ready to ask ourselves? In this moment of wonderment, Murphy’s paintings have reached another level. We’re not just looking at the bag, because the scale indicates something else is going on. Did we just open it or are we about to close it?

The relationship between our body and what we look at is Murphy’s innovation of observational drawing; It always establishes a deep connection between the viewer and the subject, which, in the paintings “Flight” (2020) and “Kitchen Door” (2021), becomes fraught with the possibility of what could happen next.

In “Flight,” we are laid at the top of a carpeted staircase, looking down at a belted bathrobe tied at the bottom. Compositionally, the staircase begins at the lower edge of the board, rising more than halfway to the top of the roof, with the bathrobe in the remaining space along the top. Everything has been carefully calibrated, but none appear to be contrived.

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

We seem to be standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at the bathrobe, feeling like we’re inside the painting. While many observant painters make the viewer feel like a separate observer, perhaps even a voyeur or an innocent witness, Murphy pushes us into a position as he invites us to find out what is going on. Who is the bathrobe? Why does it fall to the bottom of the drop? Is someone throwing dirty laundry down the stairs because it’s easier than carrying a stacked basket?

As soon as you see the whole painting, you begin to notice other aspects of it, which attract your attention the most. This is truly one of Murphy’s masters. It can make the mysterious rug look mysterious. There is no shorthand in her paintings. Everything—from the rug’s fuzziness to its uneven color and obvious staining from use—is at work. As we refocus and turn our attention, this scene at least reverts to the possibility of falling from the bottom of the stairs, joining the extended bathrobe. By making everything in the painting fit, Murphy forces us to look around, which puts us in an even more dangerous situation because we didn’t pay attention for a moment to where we were standing.

This state of heightened awareness also places Murphy’s paintings on a different level of anxiety and reactivity. One way it achieves this is through its remarkable ability to simulate the surface of the object you’re painting, whether it’s a fuzzy or patterned wallpaper in “Prequel” (2021) or the pale green leather armrests of a well-used office chair in “Bags of Rags” (2019). ), which, as a meditation on death and time, is one of the most powerful and chilling paintings in this enchanting exhibition.

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

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

Who are these clothes for and why were they stuffed in plastic bags as if they were useless? Are they donated to a thrift store? How about a dyed leather chair in a pale green shade? Just as I think “flying” is about weakness and fear of falling, which is something older people worry about, “rag bags” are about the remnants and obsolescence of a broken chair. One of the strengths of this painting—and there are a lot of it, starting with the way everything is painted—is that Murphy never really guides our thinking. It is the things themselves that capture our attention, even as they conjure up our future.

Whether in painting or drawing, Murphy seamlessly integrates the objectivity of research closely and directly with different levels of subjectivity. Its operation is always at the service of the search, and one never sees a signature flourish or a sign. She is particularly sensitive to the surface sensation of something, whether it’s the fabric of striped T-shirts in “Packed” or the mottled skin and possibly bruises of a young, bare-legged woman in “Head to Toe” (2018).

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

Composition angle and cut are key components in her research, as each panel gives us a different view of something, the front end of the patterned background of Camo’s camouflage jacket (2020) or the four-corner views seen with a surveillance camera on the graphite tour of the sketch tour “Night Watch” (2018) ), which replicates that strange light from another world for a camera photographing the surroundings of a house at night.

I think one of the reasons Murphy is not widely celebrated is that her work is neither elegant nor great. The opinions are not theatrical and dramatic, as in Edward Hopper, who was a terrible painter and a wonderful artist. Murphy’s paint treatment isn’t overtly dramatic, but it’s breathtaking, as it seems capable of recreating every type of surface, from used leather to large plastic buckets filled with water, to a squeaky squeegee in the “kitchen door” (2021). If “Flight” conveys the fear of falling, “Kitchen Door” conveys the anxiety of slipping on a winter’s night, starting from the moment you leave your home and step out into the world, while “Night Watch” is about feeling vulnerable and needing protection.

Murphy depicts the mop as a trapezoid that rises from the lower edge of the plate and tilts forward. The tilt angle and close-up view indicate that the viewer is standing inside, about to come out. The mop’s tilted plane seems to foretell the future, plus it brings out the anxiety one might have about falling, especially if you’re feeling low or vulnerable. This is our physical state that Murphy is talking about. By literally picking a subject underfoot, paying attention to it, piling snow and a stone path, shattering the illusion of security that many people believe will never change. Its sensitivity to aging and the sense of powerlessness that can overwhelm any of us is unique and innovative, especially in the current art world and cult of signature styles, which can be seen as a misguided bulwark against the passage of time. The art world must do the right thing and respect Murphy’s greatness.

Catherine Murphy: The Last Work It continues at Peter Freeman, Inc. (140 Grand Street, Manhattan), through January 8, 2022.

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