Whitehot Magazine

Catherine Murphy: Recent Work at Peter Freeman, Inc.

Installation view, Catherine Murphy, Peter Freeman Inc. New York, NY, photo by Nick Knight

Catherine Murphy: Recent Work
January 11 – February 24
Peter Freeman, Inc. 
140 Grand Street 
New York, New York 10013


Paul Cummings: “Do you think that painting is more of an emotional expression than an intellectual one?”

Fairfield Porter: “No, I don’t think it’s more emotional or more intellectual. I think it’s a way of making the connection between yourself and everything.” 

-Fairfield Porter in conversation with Paul Cummings 

When it comes to connections with everything, few do it with more quiet elegance than Catherine Murphy. Murphy’s current exhibition at Peter Freeman, Inc presents nine paintings (one a diptych) and five drawings made in the past five years. It is hard to imagine a show of contemporary realism more beautifully conceived, crafted, spaced and installed on gallery walls; Murphy's attention to detail rules both arenas: material and measure.

For all its precision, the subject matter of the work is humble – a pink inner tube, a leather gloves and bag, broken crockery, a rolled up electrical cord, a pond – and confined to thin, compact slices of daily life culled from the studio, kitchen, and library or yard. Murphy’s list of verbs appears to be decidedly feminine: cooking, baking, nesting, gathering, reading, and watching. She seems to be a bit of a homebody. The distance traveled in the making of the work can easily be measured by a ruler or a tape measure rather than an odometer. The exceptions, then, would be the two paintings of the glassy surface of a swimming hole where the only escape in each is provided not by a horizon, but by the reflection of clear blue sky, albeit an inverted one.

What Murphy saved in travel time is more than made up for in the time it takes her to execute a drawing or painting. The works range in size: on the small side, the graphite drawing Inside Out (2016) measures 12 ¼ inches by 17 3/16 inches graphite on paper, while Float (2015), a large oil oil on canvas, clocks in at 72 inches by 54 inches. Whatever her medium or surface, Murphy has labored over it for countless hours. Her approach places her in line with the great contemporary Spanish calendar realist Antonio Lopez-Garcia–he of the decades-long march to completion of a work. While Lopez-Garcia's work dissolves before your eyes once you cross a line in the Spanish earth and move in closer than a painter’s distance, Murphy’s approach to realism comes with a more polished and myopic point of view both in composition and surface. 

Murphy’s secret weapon, however, is her ability to capture the essence of a place – more specifically her place, like an aroma or scent as it wafts from room to room before eventually escaping out a window. Nowhere is this sense of immediacy more evident than in the first gallery, where a suite of gold-toned paintings evolve from recipe to dessert as they pivot around a kitchen space. In Flat Screen (2016), a television screen image is frozen in time, revealing a line of receding trees on the Cooking Channel. The rhythm, pattern, and placement of the brushstrokes seem to echo a Van Gogh orchard, but the lack of heavy impasto, along with the smooth, buttery, blended paint handling, is pure Murphy. In Shift (2016), the rolled dough of the pie crust is presented as a diptych on two canvases and looks like an antique map with spheres representing the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The deckled edges and peaked islands of flour reminded me of a Leonardo Da Vinci study of the human skull; the cracks in the raw crust like suture lines connecting the neurocranium. Completing the baking suite is Cherry Pie (2014), where the pie tin looks like a row of stationary typewriter keys awaiting fingers–fingers that have instead grabbed a fork to dig into the pie crust, revealing a huddle of cherries swimming in a gelatinous, sugary membrane with the texture of an exposed brain during surgery. 

Catherine Murphy, Shift, 2016, oil on canvas, in two parts, each: 37 7/8 x 45 1/8 x 1 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc.

Murphy is also a master of the color wheel thermostat, which is oddly nowhere more evident than in an all-black painting: a headless, bust-length (self?) portrait entitled Clasp from 2017. The painting collects its title from both the sitter’s interlocked gloved hands and the clasp of her handbag. In the work, a slow burn of tonal shifts occurs as the leather gloves and a leather handbag give off the amber glow of candlelight, while a delicate tint of red warms the fabric overcoat’s temperature. The circle formed by the strap of the handbag hangs like the nose ring of a bull, and takes us back to the rawhide from where these two accessories originally came.

As confessional as her spaces are, like archaeological sites unearthed to survey one’s own existence, there is a private and guarded side to them. The paintings and drawings have a feeling of confinement created by the sudden, abrupt crops and framings that cause tension between shapes and their projection in space. It is this uneasy balance between illusion and surface that gives Murphy the psychological boundary, like a veil, between her and her audience, and links her list of influences to abstract artists like Frank Stella and Robert Mangold. The artist Murphy shares her closet affinity to is the late, great Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha, who spent the majority of his life in Paris. Arikha was a concentration camp survivor who abandoned abstraction for “the hunger of the eye” in the 1960s. But Arikha never truly abandoned abstraction; he simply hid it in plain sight. It is the same hungry eyesight Catherine Murphy possesses and brings to her work. The major difference between the two is that Arikha worked rapidly–wet into wet–in short bursts, with brushstrokes that sweep up a dusty reality like a broom. He would finish a painting in a single sitting. Murphy, on the other hand, moves across her surface with patience; her brush (or pencil) stands in for a flashlight gathering clues in her search of pictorial answers. 

In the Arikhaesque Stacked (2017), five rows of stacked books look like blank rubber stamps waiting to deliver thoughts contained on pages unseen. The absence of visible spines prevents the subjects from entering our thoughts, while at the same time leaving the idea of “book knowledge” open to interpretation. The columns are erected like some teetering temple where the acid-burned sides of the pages seep forward, creating a new pathway to thought. A gentle melancholy hovers of the work because of the inclusion of one lonely dust jacket that marks the stopping point of an unfinished volume. The overall impression is of a trapped story that looks like it will never be completely told. In the drawing Studio Wall (2014), frozen motion occurs in the shifting contours of a pair of butterfly wings that dust up the bottom of the picture plane; at the same time they have been stapled, strung and bound to the paper by the linear ghosts of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. 

Catherine Murphy, Stacked, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist and Peter Freeman, Inc.

For all its hard-earned beauty, the show does present a few questions. Murphy professes to work only from direct observation, and even though she doesn’t paint from photographs, she paints with the knowledge afforded us by photography. In addition, knowing that she came of age as an artist in the 1960s during the rise of Photorealism in America makes it difficult not to connect her in some way to the camera. The first way would be through the wonderful human light meter Murphy has in her head–a light meter that appears to short her dark and light values ever so slightly at the top and bottom of the light scale, thus helping to flatten her surfaces. Murphy pairs her use of light with a common-sense approach to surface detail and how much information she gives to the viewer, which is never as much as you think. She is wholly aware of the limitations of the pictorial plane and manages to exit her work, leaving the viewer enough oxygen to both breathe in and move around her surface. 

What really elevates Catherine Murphy’s work though are her fingertipsfingertips so skilled that I would encourage anyone in her company to check their wallet or purse after departing it. Of course, I am not implying she is a thief of anything other than your time, as her work rewards focus and concentration and demands library quiet. At the end of your days, you may wish you had a few of the hours she stole from you back, but I honestly don’t think you’ll care or let alone notice. For that is the best kind of reward: the reward that happens free from expectation, like staring at a wall and discovering a universe. WM


David Ambrose

David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.

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