Catherine Murphy’s Observational Paintings Find the Uncanny in the Ordinary

Catherine Murphy’s Observational Paintings Find the Uncanny in the Ordinary

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

A doormat in winter; an open suitcase with two neatly pressed and folded shirts; two clear plastic bags filled with clothes, sitting on a broken office chair in a nondescript corner — there is nothing extraordinary about Murphy’s subjects. And yet there is something inexplicably disturbing about her paintings and drawings. It is this aspect of her work — her particularizations of the ordinary — that are central to why I believe she has become an unrivaled figure in contemporary art.  

As a longtime admirer of Murphy’s work and the author of her only monograph, Catherine Murphy (2016), with a foreword by Svetlana Alpers, once again I was bowled over by the singularity of vision she attained in her exhibition Catherine Murphy: Recent Work, at Peter Freeman, Inc. (November 12, 2021–January 8, 2022). While the specificity of light and scene has been true of her work since the beginning of her career, in this exhibition of nine oil paintings and four graphite drawings she seems to have pushed into a new and ominous territory, having to do with vulnerability and aging — a subject that few American artists other than Jasper Johns have addressed with any equanimity.  

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

Formally, Murphy does a number of things that distinguish her from other observational painters. The most important is that she does not use a one-to-one scale to paint what she sees. Rather than adhering to this formula, which has been a mainstay of painting from life, she enlarges the scale, with the two largest paintings in the current exhibition measuring five-by-five feet square. By squaring everything up, she enhances the relationship between seeing and subject matter. 

The relationship of subject to scale shifts from painting to painting, with “Packed” (2018) — an overhead view of two different-colored, striped button down shirts folded neatly in a suitcase — occupying a perceptual zone where we are not quite sure how far we are from the suitcase. The frontal view suggests that we are physically rather close to the shirts, as we look straight down into the suitcase. Why have we stopped to look so intently, we are apt to ask ourselves? It is in this moment of questioning that Murphy’s paintings reach another level. We are not simply looking into the suitcase, because the scale suggests that something else is happening. Have we just opened it or are we about to close it? 

The connection between our body and what we are looking at is Murphy’s innovation to observational painting; she always establishes a visceral connection between viewer and 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 positioned at the top of a flight of carpeted stairs looking down at a belted, checkerboard bathrobe lying at the bottom. Compositionally, the stairs start at the painting’s bottom edge, rising more than halfway up the surface, with the bathrobe just fitting in the remaining space along the top. Everything is carefully calibrated, but none of it seems contrived. 

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

Seemingly standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at the bathrobe, we feel as if we are inside the painting. Whereas many observational painters make the viewer feel like a detached observer, possibly even a voyeur or innocent witness, Murphy pulls us into a situation while inviting us to figure out what is going on. Whose bathrobe is it? Why is it at the bottom of the landing? Is someone throwing the dirty laundry down the stairs because it is easier than carrying down a crammed hamper? 

Once you see the painting in its entirety, you begin to notice other aspects of it, which further grab your attention. This is really one of Murphy’s masteries. She can make a fuzzy carpet look fuzzy. There is no shorthand in her paintings. Everything — from the fuzziness of the carpet to its uneven color and apparent staining from use — is there in the work. As we refocus and our attention shifts, this viewer at least was brought back to the possibility of falling down the stairs, of joining the sprawled bathrobe. By making everything in the painting pertinent, Murphy compels us to look all around it, placing us in a more precarious position because we have momentarily not paid attention to where we are standing. 

This state of heightened consciousness also sets Murphy’s paintings on a different plane of apprehension and interaction. One way she achieves this is through her remarkable ability to mimic the surface of the thing that she is painting, be it fuzzy, patterned wallpaper in “Prequel” (2021) or the faded green leather armrests of a well-used office chair in “Bags of Rags” (2019), which, as a meditation on mortality and time, is one of the most powerful and quietly chilling paintings in this mesmerizing exhibition. 

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

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

Whose clothes are these and why have they been stuffed into plastic bags, as if they have no further use? Are they being donated to a thrift store? What about the dyed leather chair that is tinted a faded green? Just as I think “Flight” is about vulnerability and the fear of falling, something that concerns older people, “Bags of Rags” is about remnants and the obsolescence of a broken-down chair. One strength of this painting — and there are many, starting with the way everything is painted — is that Murphy never directs our thinking. It is the things themselves that hold our attention, even as they evoke our future.

Whether in painting or drawing, Murphy seamlessly merges the objectivity of looking closely and directly with different levels of subjectivity. Her process is always at the service of looking, and one never sees a signature flourish or mark. She is particularly sensitive to the surface feel of a thing, be it the texture of the striped cotton shirts in “Packed” or the mottled and perhaps bruised skin of a young woman’s bare legs in “Head to Toe” (2018).

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

The angle of the composition and the cropping are essential components of her inquiry, with each painting giving us a different view of a specific thing, the frontal one of the patterned back of a camouflage jacket in “Camo” (2020) or the four angled views shown by a surveillance camera in the tour de force graphite drawing “Night Watch” (2018), which replicates that eerie, otherworldly light of a camera filming the perimeter of a house at night.

I think one reason why Murphy is not more widely celebrated is that her work is neither hip nor cool. The views are not theatrical and dramatic, as they are in Edward Hopper, who was a clunky painter and great artist. Murphy’s paint handling is not overtly dramatic, but it is breathtaking, because she seems to able to recreate every kind of surface, from used leather to large plastic buckets filled with water, to the perforated rubber doormat in “Kitchen Door” (2021). If “Flight” conveys the fear of falling, “Kitchen Door” transmits the anxiety of slipping on a winter night, beginning with the moment you leave your house and step out into the world, while “Night Watch” is about a feeling of vulnerability and the need for protection.

Murphy depicts the doormat as a trapezoid rising from the painting’s bottom edge and tilting forward. The angle of the tilt and the close-up view suggest the viewer is standing inside, about to go out. The doormat’s angled plane seems to be foretelling the future, as well as underscoring the anxiety one might have about falling, especially if you feel frail or vulnerable. It is this state of our physical being that Murphy speaks to. By picking a subject that is literally underfoot, and being attentive to it, and to the piled snow and stone pathway, she shatters the illusion of security that many people believe will never change. Her sensitivity to aging and the feeling of defenselessness that can flood any one of us is unique and original, especially in the current art world and its worship of signature styles, which can be seen as a misguided bulwark against time passing. The art world should do the right thing and honor Murphy’s greatness. 

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

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