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Catherine Murphy, Lennon, Weinberg


Catherine Murphy shows the eight paintings and three drawings that she has completed since her last show in 1998. Her works employ a disconnected realism in the service of fundamentally abstract formal concerns. (A view through a screen window at night, in fact, seems too interested in abstract conventions.) The pieces in this show are confrontational almost without exception, combining her startlingly exacting execution with compositions that are plainly difficult to look at.

One painting of a room’s corner seems calibrated specifically for its lack of taste: orange shag carpet, green baseboard, faux-tapestry wallpaper befitting a hunting lodge. Its stark symmetry denies the viewer any visual resting place, except to wander among the oddities of the walls’ pattern. It’s a bit like looking at the magnificent Ingres portrait of Napoleon. The sheer iconic composition deflects the viewer into the rewarding minute moments throughout the canvas that show us with great variety what paint is capable of. And yet the paint itself is applied in pretty much the same way throughout most of Murphy’s works. It is as if she reduces the scene to a surface game, the way one would paint from a photograph (though she does not); her method is clinical, plodding, but not penetrating. In contrast to the emotive realism of Eakins, for example, Murphy’s vision is more muscular, with a matter-of-fact kind of disconnect between her marks and the things they convey. When you might expect the paint to be thin and washy, she has simply painted the phenomenon of fluidity—evidenced in the smudgy pen-ink on a sheet of crumpled notebook paper in “Getting Set Up”.

"Cathy 2001". Oil on canvas. 64 1/2 x 64 3/4". Image courtesy of Peter Freeman, Inc. New York.

If the execution feels coolly detached, there is no question that the artist herself is intensely, almost overwhelmingly engaged in her work. “Getting Set Up” appears to be a note to herself, a page from a diary. You can’t read everything, but what you can pick put makes clear that the emotional stakes are very high. In a small landscape painting by the show’s entrance, a hand covers much of the picture plane, almost like a celebrity trying to block a paparazzi photo, denying us what we think we know. The gesture annoys, and one finds oneself unsure whether to focus upon the greenery beyond or the wrinkles of the palm. A wedding ring is attached to the hand almost like an afterthought.

These struggles are rewarded, or at least resolved, with the show’s most powerful work. In a large, almost square format, a winter landscape is obscured by a foggy window. The bare calligraphy of the trees is visible around the edges, but is gradually blocked completely by the condensation, which becomes densest at the middle of the canvas. At this moment, when we’ve basically been shut out again, the artist’s name cuts through the milky fog, scrawled backwards with a finger on the cold pane. It is hard not to feel like some large event is occurring, be it a formal or a personal triumph—likely a combination of both. The trees and snow rush back in clear focus, in case we doubted they’d been there all along.


Peter Eleey


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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