Catherine Murphy’s Observatory Paintings Find the eerie in the ordinary

Catherine Murphy is one of our great artists. During a career that began in 1971, she has never branded herself, trusted a format, worked in a series or produced signature works, making her unique. She is an observation painter who does not return to the same well, which is practically unheard of in art. What further sets her work apart from other observational artists is that her paintings are both eerie and emotionally charged.

A doormat in the winter; an open suitcase with two nicely pressed and folded shirts; two clear plastic bags filled with clothes, sitting on a broken office chair in an indescribable corner – there is nothing extraordinary about Murphy’s items. And yet there is something inexplicably disturbing about her paintings and drawings. It is this aspect of her work – her specifications of the ordinary – that is central to why I believe she has become an unsurpassed figure in contemporary art.

As a longtime admirer of Murphy’s work and author of her only monograph, Catherine Murphy (2016), with a foreword by Svetlana Alpers, I was once again overwhelmed by the unique vision she achieved in her exhibition Catherine Murphy: Recent work, at Peter Freeman, Inc. (November 12, 2021 – January 8, 2022). While the specifics of light and stage have been true of her work since the beginning of her career, in this exhibition of nine oil paintings and four graphite drawings she seems to have pushed into a new and ominous territory dealing with vulnerability and aging – a topic that few American artists other than Jasper Johns have treated with any serenity.

Catherine Murphy, “Flight” (2020), oil on canvas, 60 x 49 3/4 inches

Formally, Murphy does a number of things that set her apart from other observation painters. The most important thing is that she does not use a one-to-one scale to paint what she sees. Instead of sticking to this formula, which has been a cornerstone of painting from life, she enlarges the scale with the two largest paintings in the current exhibition, measuring five times five feet square. By squaring everything, she reinforces the relationship between seeing and subject.

The relationship between subject and scale shifts from painting to painting, with “Packed” (2018) – a top-down image of two different-colored, striped button-down shirts folded neatly in a suitcase – occupying a perceptual zone where we are not entirely sure how far we are from the suitcase. It from the front suggests that we are physically quite close to the shirts as we look straight down into the suitcase. Why have we stopped to look so attentively, we tend to ask ourselves? It is at the moment of this question that Murphy’s paintings reach another level. We are not just looking into the suitcase, because the scale indicates that something else is happening. Have we just opened it, or are we about to close it?

The connection between our body and what we look at is Murphy’s innovation in observational painting; she always establishes a visceral connection between viewer and motif, which in the paintings “Flight” (2020) and “Kitchen Door” (2021) is filled with the possibility of what can happen now.

In “Flight” we are placed on top of a carpeted staircase and look down on a checkered bathrobe with belt lying at the bottom. In terms of composition, the stairs start at the lower edge of the painting and rise more than halfway up the surface, where the bathrobe just fits into the remaining space along the top. Everything is carefully calibrated, but none of it seems contrived.

Catherine Murphy, “Night Watch” (2018), graphite on paper, 23 1/16 x 37 15/16 inches

When we apparently stand at the top of the stairs and look down at the bathrobe, we feel as if we are inside the painting. How many observational painters make the viewer feel like a detached observer, possibly even a voyeur or an innocent witness, Murphy pulls us into a situation while inviting us to find out what’s going on. Whose bathrobe is it? Why is it at the bottom of the repos? Does anyone throw the dirty laundry down the stairs because it’s easier than carrying a stuffy sink down?

When you see the painting in its entirety, you begin to notice other aspects of it that further capture your attention. This is truly one of Murphy’s masters. She can make a fuzzy rug look fuzzy. There is no shorthand in her paintings. Everything – from the opacity of the rug to its uneven color and apparent stains from use – is there in the work. While we focus again and our attention shifts, this viewer was at least brought back to the possibility of falling down the stairs, to join the scattered bathrobe. By making everything in the painting relevant, Murphy forces us to look around it, placing us in a more uncertain position because for a moment we have not been aware of where we stand.

This state of heightened awareness also puts Murphy’s paintings on another level of understanding and interaction. One way she achieves this is through her remarkable ability to mimic the surface of the thing she paints, be it fuzzy, patterned wallpaper in “Prequel” (2021) or the faded green leather armrests on a well-used office chair in “Bags of Rags ”(2019), which as a meditation on mortality and time is one of the most powerful and quietly cooling paintings in this fascinating exhibition.

Catherine Murphy, “Kitchen Door” (2021), oil on canvas, 52 1/4 x 60 inches

In “Bags of Rags,” two large transparent garbage bags filled with clothes are stacked up on a green leather office chair that has seen better days. We do not know the circumstances, which is central to our experience of the work. The chair has been pushed into a corner and we seem to be standing in front of it and considering what is in front of us.

If it is clothing, and why has it been stuffed in plastic bags, as if it can no longer be used? Are they donated to a thrift store? How about the colored leather chair that is tinted a faded green? Just as I think “Flight” is about vulnerability and fear of falling, something that preoccupies older people, “Bags of Rags” is about remnants and obsolescence of a broken chair. One strength of this painting – and there are many, starting with the way everything is painted – is that Murphy never controls our thinking. It is the things themselves that hold our attention, even as they evoke our future.

Whether in painting or drawing, Murphy seamlessly combines objectivity by looking closely and directly at different levels of subjectivity. Her process is always at the service of looking, and one never sees a signature blossom or mark. She is particularly sensitive to the surface sensation of a thing, be it the texture of the striped cotton shirts in “Packed” or the stained and perhaps bruised skin on a young woman’s bare legs in “Head to Toe” (2018).

Catherine Murphy, “Thorn” (2020), graphite on paper, 30 x 29 1/4 inches

The angle of the composition and the cropping are essential components of her study, where each painting gives us a different view of a particular thing, the front of the patterned back of a camouflage jacket in “Camo” (2020) or the four angled views shown by a surveillance camera in the tour de force graphite drawing “Night Watch” (2018), which repeats the eerie, supernatural light from a camera filming the perimeter of a house at night.

I think one reason Murphy is no longer prevalent is that her work is neither hip nor cool. The views are not theatrical and dramatic as they are in Edward Hopper, who was a clumsy painter and great artist. Murphy’s paint handling is not overtly dramatic, but it is breathtaking because she seems to be able to recreate any kind of surface, from used leather to large plastic buckets filled with water, to the perforated rubber doormat in “Kitchen Door” (2021 ). If “Flight” conveys the fear of falling, “Kitchen Door” conveys the fear of slipping a winter night, beginning with the moment you leave your house and step out into the world, while “Night Watch” is about a sense of vulnerability and the need for protection.

Murphy depicts the doormat as a trapezoid rising from the bottom of the painting and tilting forward. The angle of the tilt and the close-up indicate that the viewer is inside and about to exit. The doormat’s angled plane seems to predict the future, as well as to emphasize the anxiety one may have about falling, especially if one feels fragile or vulnerable. It is this state of our physical being that Murphy speaks to. By choosing a subject that is literally under her feet, and being aware of it, and on the stacked snow and stone road, she shatters the illusion of safety that many people think will never change. Her sensitivity to aging and the sense of defenselessness that can flood any of us is unique and original, especially in the current art world and its adoration of signature styles that can be seen as a misunderstood bulwark against the passing of time. The art world should do the right thing and honor Murphy’s greatness.

Catherine Murphy: Recent work continues at Peter Freeman, Inc. (140 Grand Street, Manhattan) through January 8, 2022.

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