John Murphy

These are strange paintings—rude, sacred, fearsome. How could they be otherwise when they bear, in whole or in part, the image of the donkey, holy beast of burden? From the cruciform figured by its hide to its lovingly rendered hairy asshole, the donkey is alluded to in various ways. Painted along the lower edges of these works a text reads “The image . . . has nothing to resemble . . . and fascination is passion for the image.” We are transfixed by a torture of matter and made giddy by stroke upon stroke of seething paint. Shades of gray, white and the palest brown are applied to a barely discernible red ground on fine linen. Silent Vertigo, 1989, engenders reverence, an image of the cross seems to burn in tongues of ash. The very title of another work, The Ass’s Silent Vertigo, 1988–89, an image in which the creature rises up on its back hooves, invokes revelational admonishment: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image.” The artist is scourged (these four works were seven painful months in the making), but we are saved. In the companion piece, The Donkey’s Silent Vertigo, the idol is fallen, or at least upside down. There is no final deciphering of this ancient image of human folly and mendacity, here the source is Goya, but it might well have been Alfred Jarry, Luis Buñuel, or even more logically, given John Murphy’s Constellation paintings, the two asses that comprise the Sign of Cancer.

These new paintings, collectively entitled “Silent Vertigo,” are the latest of a series of works with emblematic animal images that function metonymically and metaphorically. In none, however, has the phenomenology of the painting in itself been so rudely asserted. The scumbled, grazed skin of earlier paintings such as Petals of lust (Epidendrum nocturnum), 1984, and the tufted surface of How will the Wolf Survive?, 1985–86, thicken and coarsen in these newer works. There has been plenty of gray painting lately but none which reeks so splendidly of corporeality, and its transcendence. It is this acute tension between the here and now and the beyond, between the charming excess of the detail and the fear of loss—the fading of the image into nothingness—which captivates the viewer.

Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton