New York

Catherine Murphy

Xavier Fourcade, Inc.

Catherine Murphy’s paintings look like many other Realist paintings in their constipated handling of superhuman detail, the need to “get it all in” usually producing failed passages. (All-inclusiveness, or perfection, is against the law of averages.) The major difference between Murphy and many other painters of her school—aside from her iconographic wit—is that her awkwardness and leadenness have a reason for being in her subject matter and, more importantly, in her view of that subject matter.

Murphy warps the domestic details of the working class, composing them badly to convey the poignant artlessness of a certain kind of decent but unlovely lower-middle-class existence. Oddly angled, her spaces present the skewed perspective of an eye deformed by the harshness of a restricted life. She refuses to prettify, gripping us by the hair and forcing us to confront the unredeemed, the unesthetic. That’s why so many of her paintings are decentered or turn on the banal—for example, in the way an air compressor becomes the focal point of View Toward Baker Avenue, 1980—a form of desublimation that paradoxically retains the sense of repression. As in Cellar Light, 1985, which peeks at the back and underside of a house, the usually hidden pipes and ducts, nothing monstrous or spectacular is revealed; it is an admission of depression, not dementia. In the stretched-out walls and floors, agoraphobia reigns: empty space becomes claustrophobic.

Even Murphy’s incessant mirroring, a common-enough device, suggests the incarceration of redundancy The ceramic elephants in Stairwell, 1980, discoursing on scale as they line up, little to big, along a windowsill, reverse the narrowing spiral of the painting’s movement down the stairwell, which terminates in the foreshortened figures at the bottom. Yet the figures and the painting itself, like the elephants, are lumbering, ungainly. In Visitors, 1983, a grouping of figures outside a house is echoed by a grouping of fruit inside, each equally stilled life; the hospitality symbolized by a pineapple is merely rhetorical in light of the eternally sustained glimpse of these visitors waiting at the door. That which is denied is in hiding, and indeed, the viewpoint of many of these works is that of an unseen spy. Who is looking down the staircase? Not Murphy—she’s at the bottom. Who covertly watches the waiting visitors? Who hesitates to look directly into the cellar passage?

Murphy’s drawings are nicer to look at than her paintings; the toothiness of the paper and the crumbly quality of the graphite produce a pleasing grain. The paintings have no texture, not even the glossy finish of a photograph; the objects represented offer various patterns but have no tactility—there is never evidence of a brushstroke or a change in the thickness of the paint surface, which adds to the paintings’ unpleasant but powerful effect of sensory deprivation. There is something autistic also in the rigid figures, in the way they appear cut out of one picture and pasted onto another. Edges are impossibly sharp; colors are sociological, verifiable slices of real life, and as tasteless as the hues in Joel Meyerowitz’s photographs, but without the latter’s hyperreal glamour. In photo lingo, there’s no depth of field in Murphy’s canvases; however, depth of feeling is another story.

Jeanne Silverthorne