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A Painter of a Different Magnitude

Catherine Murphy, “CrissCross” (2018), oil on canvas, 42 ½ x 62 ¼ inches (image courtesy of Harry Roseman)

I have been following Catherine Murphy’s work since the mid-1980s, when I included a painting of hers in the exhibition, The New Response: Contemporary Painters of the Hudson River (1985) at the Albany Institute of History and Art. In 2016, after writing about her work a number of times, I was able to realize a dream I had long harbored, which was to write a monograph on her, Catherine Murphy (Skira Rizzoli, 2016), with a foreword by Svetlana Alpers. When it comes to Murphy’s work, I am all in.

One thing that excites me about Murphy’s work — and this is something many critics have pointed out — is her uncanny ability to transform whatever her subject (a leather purse, a dirty pink inflatable swim ring, gooey red cherries clumped together, or a stucco wall) into a skin of oil paint. The reason viewers marvel is because she does not paint images; she paints things. And yet, there is more to her work than her astonishing mastery, and that is her ability to place a wide range of formal devices (cropping, viewpoint, color, and light) at the service of her imagination. She makes works that get under my skin, that haunt me, and that seem inexhaustible and mysterious.

Murphy’s power has nothing to do with being a realist or an abstractionist, an observational painter or a conceptual artist. Such categories seem beside the point at this moment in time. In many ways, she doesn’t seem fit comfortably into any of the categories we associate with realism. She is not a landscape painter. She doesn’t paint portraits or nudes. She does not paint industrial sites or cityscapes. She does not work in series.

She may be painting what she sees, but it seems to me that she is really painting her dreams, those unexpected, slippery, revelatory moments. Murphy’s paintings are lucid daydreams of everyday life. That, I think, is what sets her apart from her contemporaries, and elevates her work into a visual domain it alone occupies.

Those who follow Murphy’s work know that she is a slow painter, and that it can take many months and even years to finish a painting or drawing. They also know she does not repeat herself, that there are no variations on a theme. This is why the rare visit to her studio — we live miles apart from each other — is such a treat. A week ago, I was able to go to Murphy’s studio and see a recently completed painting, “CrissCross” (2018).

The painting is an angled view of a young woman who is sitting crosslegged on the grass. She is wearing green shorts, yellow socks, and red sneakers. A white cell phone is lying on the grass before her. A face stares up from the screen, most likely a selfie. We stand in front of the young woman, looking down. All we see of her is the lower half of her shorts and her bare, crisscrossed legs, which create a misshapen triangle whose apex is formed by the crotch.

The woman’s knees are slightly cropped by painting’s left and right edges, suggesting that she cannot be quite contained within the s canvas’s limitations, and that her body is at odds with its borders. We see the lower part of the body and an image of a face on a screen, looking up. Murphy underscores something about an observational painting we tend to take for granted: it is a sustained view.

By making her subject synonymous with one of painting’s intrinsic formal properties, which is that everything is still and therefore available for scrutiny, Murphy makes viewers acutely conscious that they are implicated by the view. What are we looking at, and why are we looking at it?

In “Persimmon” (1991), we are confronted by a close-up view of a pair of lips coated with smeared lipstick that extends beyond their edges. The view is straightforward but the reason why the lipstick is smeared is never explained, much less hinted at. You see what has happened but you don’t know why. The everyday world is familiar and inexplicable. The views are severe. We have gotten too close, too intimate, you could say. This seems particularly true of “Clasped” (2013), which features a close-up view of a woman wearing an ordinary black cloth winter coat and wrinkled black leather gloves, while clutching a black, semicircular, nondescript leather pocketbook.

Catherine Murphy, “Clasped” (2013), oil on canvas, 46 x 50 inches (image courtesy of Peter Freeman Gallery)

Why is this woman seated before us? Is she someone we might see on a bus or subway? It is clear that Murphy finds beauty varieties of texture ( which include wrinkled leather and undistinguished cloth), while she limits her palette to one dominated by black.

What does it mean to examine someone whose face we never acknowledge, and to focus instead on a portion of her body? What is the nature of the intimacy? We never simply look at Murphy’s paintings — the “innocent” gaze holds little interest for her. Instead, we begin to look at ourselves looking: we start to ask questions about this fiction she has invited us to pore over. This is what I find so interesting, disquieting, engaging, strange, and familiar about “CrissCross.” It is likely that all of us have focused intently on some part of someone’s body before. What was our intention? The painting asks: what do you have in mind?

“CrissCross” invites speculation and is not reductive. You cannot quite name what Murphy is up to. Her attention to detail is astounding. We know the self is fragmented. We see n the same theme addressed in Philip Guston’s “Head and Bottle” (1975) and Jasper Johns’s “Target with Four Faces” (1955) and “Racing Thoughts” (1983).

In a number of paintings that Murphy has done over her career, she examines the viewer’s fragmenting of the self, the way we look here but not there. The subjects being examined are almost always women. The way she dresses these women of different ages is telling. There is nothing overtly feminine about what the young woman in “CrissCross” is wearing. Absolutely none of it calls out for attention. It is nondescript, ordinary and genderless. And yet, by accentuating what is fundamental to observational painting — that time is suspended in whatever we are looking at — Murphy pushes realism into a fresh place.

This is why the heightened state of detail she has reached in “CrissCross” is so essential to its meaning. If we look at something as closely as we do in a Murphy painting, lingering over every part — from the green of the wrinkled shorts to the light and shadow reflected on the bare legs to the blades of grass around the cell phone — we are apt to be seeing with a dream-like clarity. Now we must ask: what is the dream telling us?

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