Painting at its strongest melds the slowly unfolding process of seeing, both externally and internally, with the distinctive vision of its creator. Taking on a life of its own, painting stands outside of any temporal moment. Yet to depict any such moment paradoxically requires significantly more time for it to be visually parsed and understood. One almost has to live with a painting to fully experience it. Catherine Murphy’s paintings at Knoedler and Company exemplify this kind of deep seeing in her complex depictions of seemingly simple and everyday subjects.
At first her subjects appear to have little in common: a bird’s reflection in a mirror, a sleeping woman beneath a blanket, Christmas lights framing a window in an almost pitch-black night. Also, her titles do little more than support the simplicity of her subjects: "Hand Mirror, Comforter, Xmas Lights". In these paintings, as in the remaining four paintings and four drawings in the exhibition, it’s the way she treats her subjects that unifies her work. Murphy has a singular way of selecting an overlooked, mundane scene and by way of scale, color and detail, enlarging its significance and increasing its impact. A sense of intimacy created by her viewpoint and use of space is subliminally understood the instant it’s seen.
Murphy works exclusively from life without photographic references. In fact, I realized while viewing these paintings that photography could never provide the information or specificity present in the work, which is collected from a continued persistence of seeing. When asked if she thinks she sees with more focus or detail than others, Murphy responded that it wasn’t about seeing any more than average, but rather in giving herself enough time. To do this while painting from life may take seasons, often years, to complete a single work.
Each painting follows a different set of rules and conditions, often suggesting a relationship to abstraction. Murphy’s heightened awareness of light, reflections and surface transforms what would otherwise be a scene of indistinct darkness in "Xmas Lightsz' (2007), a painting roughly six feet wide. In this picture, there are basically three elements: lights in primary colors framing the outer edge, the window’s glass pane indicated by the lights’ reflection, and a faint view of a wooded landscape, backlit by an outdoor light. The brilliant colors of the Christmas lights (and their dimly radiating reflections) frame the contrasting monochrome, as if the background were an Ad Reinhardt decorated for the holidays.
A Minimalist sense of geometric structure is also noticeable in her playful repetition of the cruciform, whether subtly in "Her Bedroom Wall" and "Surveillance", or saliently in "Pendant". It is also reflected in the awning-like stripes of "Comforter" (2007), which can be seen as a sly comment on Kenneth Noland.
Murphy’s paintings lovingly embrace contradiction. Formally, they are about the visual and tactile—the surfaces and the touch of the brush are just as important as the accuracy of the image. We feel our way through them as paintings and narratives. In "Pendant" (2005), a crucifix appears nestled within a woman’s veined, tan-lined bosom. Enlarging a three-inch object to about three feet causes one to consider the significance in the translations of scale. The crucifix, a representation of a man on a cross, has been enlarged to not quite half the size of a person, with a corresponding magnification of the woman’s breasts. Is this image about sex, piety, gender inequality, or none of the above? Murphy’s paintings command this sort of deep reading, but "Pendant" also demonstrates her personal brand of wit. In "Her Bedroom Wall" (2006), a cruciform shape created by the negative space between posters of teen pin-ups suggests a conceptual connection to "Pendant"; that these pop images are a form of latter-day idol worship. I think Murphy’s point is to allow us to create our own narratives, to bring our individual experiences to these expansive moments.
I was once told that a painting gets on average eight seconds of viewing time. At first, I laughed. But then, I thought that eight seconds was actually an extremely generous estimate, especially recalling how, while traveling in Europe, I watched tourists quickly glance at the most significant of masterpieces. It occurred to me, after seeing this exhibition, that we probably require less than half of that amount of time to read a billboard. Photography and the visual bombardment of cinema, projecting at twenty-four frames per second, have also undeniably altered the way we see. I wonder, have we forgotten as a culture how to view a painting and/or has commercial imagery completely dulled our visual acuity? In contrast, Catherine Murphy’s paintings do exactly the opposite, placing us before a record of time, savoring the moments slowly and deliberately.
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist, writer and editor of the Art Books in Review section of the Brooklyn Rail. He is currently a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe artist residency.