Los Angeles

Todd Murphy

The Lowe Gallery

Todd Murphy’s pieces are striking for several reasons, including their scale—a third of the works in this show are of imposing proportions (around 10 by 12 feet). Murphy’s imagistic vocabulary of undefined symbols afloat in an open-ended syntax may or may not be intended as narrative. In various combinations, the works feature: geese; chandeliers; a wind-up toy duck; faceless figures in voluminous dresses; a boxer in long underwear, dukes raised, standing on a brocade chair; another figure, its face hidden from the viewer, standing on an ornate chair shouldering a small old-fashioned airplane; and still another figure, visage blurred, dress flapping in the wind, clutching a pumpkin.

Murphy’s choice of subject matter seems to point mutely toward a bid for the mythic, the archetypal, the enigmatic, the gorgeously mysterious. And though the majority of these artworks are untitled, the few titles provided also contain an echo of something sweeping, the germ of a gesture towards big classical and historical reference, i.e. Madonna With Child, Hero of the Western World, Romulus the Victor, and King of Birds (all works 1992).

Murphy’s paintings, which dominated the show, are made with oil paint, photo-collage, tar emulsion, and Plexiglas on masonite or canvas. (The exhibition also included a few small charcoal drawings—with minimal shaky lines, depicting eggs, geese, chandeliers, and clasped hands.) The paintings look a bit like odd fairy-tale illustrations dreamed up by Rembrandt and the Starn Twins. Their old-masterish effects come from their dark, murky, resiny backgrounds—at once deep, still, and swirling, the figures clad in flowing, low-cut jewel-toned dresses amidst rich, glowing colors—to which the tar emulsion overcoat gives an aged look. Overlapping squares of clear Plexiglas affixed to some of the works’ surfaces, torn areas where underlying canvas is exposed, and occasional big, cryptic, drippy lettering all toy with the painting’s art-historical look and yank them toward visual hippness. The patchwork top layer of Plexi squares, when used, helps pull the viewer’s eye back to the work’s surface just as one begins to “fall into” the active darkness enclosing Murphy’s softly luminous images.

Many pieces have rows of tarred or painted-over screws around the edges and in the middle of the image—presumably to affix the Plexi to the artwork. The ad hoc, seams-showing effect of the screws and the mosaic overlayer of Plexi help offset the works’ traditional prettiness. Perhaps the most intriguing and graspable conflict in the pictures is that most, if not all, of the beautiful gown wearers in the paintings appear to be male.

In some of the works, particularly those featuring geese, it can momentarily seem as though the subject of the painting were straining forward, trying to push its way out of the obscuring tarry morass of oil background, to escape the sticky residue of painting history and the complicated burdens that threaten to gum up one’s feathers. Though these pieces exert an undeniable magnetism, Murphy’s intentions about how viewers should read his visually arresting imagery remain almost completely opaque. Because they can be such a pleasure to look at, one hopes in the future they’ll become as articulate conceptually as they are visually.

Amy Gerstler