New York

Catherine Murphy

With the exception of Jasper Johns’ Fool’s House, 1962, we have seen little in the past few decades that has anticipated the intersection of art and life in Catherine Murphy’s tightly framed realist paintings. Like Johns’ juxtaposition of broom and smeared surface, Murphy’s Moiré Chair, 1991, proposes a witty relationship between doing and seeing, particularly with respect to domestic routines. Indeed, to say that she is a realist painter is to miss all the ways in which she uses abstraction, the picture plane, and the odd angle in order to defamiliarize what is familiar—to make the scenes she depicts into self-reflexive works of art.

In Persimmon, 1991, Murphy depicts a close-up of her mouth smeared with lipstick. It’s as if the larger-than-life lips are on fire, the smears of the lipstick rising up like flames. The work can be seen as, among other things, an oblique yet pointed comment on Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” paintings, particularly Woman, 1950, in which he collaged an image of a lipsticked mouth to the surface of the work. Persimmon is a synthesis of willful distortion and accurate reflection; the liberties the artist takes with realist conventions brings into disquieting focus the relationship between cosmetics and painting, between representation of the self and of the world.

In Chalkboard, 1990, Murphy takes her characteristic synthesis of abstraction and representation to a new extreme. On the right side, she presents a trompe l’oeil blackboard with rows of apples, pears, and bananas rendered in chalk. The painting’s left side, which is separated by a strip of faux wood, is a grayish-white wall. Chalkboard is animated by the reflection of drawing (the chalkboard), object (the wood strip), and surface (the wall), all of which are realized in paint. Murphy persistently collapses categories, undermining the way we have used them to define and, to an ever greater degree, ghettoize art, and she does so wittily, without a heavy hand. In Helium Balloon, 1992, Murphy depicts a close-up view of a girl’s balloon (printed with a sentimental image of a child practicing ballet) floating against the ceiling. We see the balloon close up because we are adults and are thus nearer the ceiling than is the child. We also know that a young girl’s dreams of being a dancer, her wish for a kind of eternal buoyancy, are most often simply fantasies.

Murphy is a realist who makes no appeals to taste or sensibility. She doesn’t couch her paintings in a bravura style, doesn’t show us the glittery accoutrements of a settled, happy life, or make paeans to the landscape. These paintings seem to be informed by a self-knowledge that is modest rather than theatrical or attention grabbing. These paintings are about something larger; they are about seeing and the responsibility that one should have toward this simple yet complex act. If by realist we mean something old-fashioned, then Murphy must be seen as a post-Modernist realist. She engages art history (particularly Modernist painting and photography) as well as the world, without letting her work become nostalgic or cynical.

John Yau