Catherine Murphy at Knoedler & Company

Catherine Murphy, Comforter (2007), oil on canvas; courtesy Knoedler & Company
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Catherine Murphy’s drawings are amazing. As feats of versimilitude, they are without peer in contemporary art—it’s difficult to bring to mind another artist capable of putting pencil to paper with as much concentration and dexterity. Ms. Murphy is unsparing in her dedication to observed fact.

Spill (2007), on display at Knoedler and Company along with a handful of other drawings and seven oil paintings, is a tour de force likely to have viewers gaping in disbelief. A glass of liquid, probably water, is shattered on an oval tabletop. The spill spreads out and downward. Within it, you can see a reflection of a window and expansive light filtering through. Each nuance of the table’s wood grain is taken into account, including a hair embedded in its polyurethane coating.

Ms. Murphy’s touch is velvety, tactile and sure. Here, you think, is an artist with the skill to show off, yet willfully opposed to doing so. Self-effacing expertise is put in the service of descriptive accuracy, whether it’s of the jagged texture of a split log or the almost imperceptible ripple in a patterned tablecloth. Ms. Murphy sees everything, and with daunting clarity.

In the catalog, critic John Yau notes that Ms. Murphy can’t quite be considered a realist. Notwithstanding her relentless pursuit in delineating, say, veins apparent under skin, she constructs what are basically abstractions. Scale has a lot to do with it—the title object in Hand Mirror(2008) and the close-up of a woman’s breasts in Pendant (2005) are larger—much larger—than life. They occupy sizable canvases with brute insistence. No one would mistake Ms. Murphy for a user-friendly artist.

In her means, both as a draftsman and a paint handler, Ms. Murphy is wholly traditional; in her compositions, she’s strategic in ways that point, albeit circuitously, to late 20th-century precedent. Is it possible to imagine the pictures without minimalism or conceptual art? They’re as autocratic as the former and share the latter’s braininess. Robert Ryman, that persistent investigator of sludgy white, is, apparently, an inspiration.

But so, too, is the 15th-century Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. It’s important to reiterate that Ms. Murphy is a visual artist—a painter resolutely attuned to detail and exactitude. Her fascination with the act of looking is most overt in Hand Mirror. We see, from a towering vantage point and inside the mirror, a cardinal alighting from a tree. A hand comes in from the bottom left, about to grasp the mirror. Where, exactly, does Ms. Murphy place us? We both participate in and are forever remote from the image. It’s a winnowed-down variant of the perceptual conundrums in Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

Ms. Murphy toys, then, with the roles of the observed and the observer. If we’re to take literally the distance between our line of sight and the crucifix wedged between the breasts seen in Pendant, we are a nose-length away. At other times, Ms. Murphy places us further away and strong-arms us into being voyeurs. In Blankets (2006), we peer through the divide between two blankets hanging on a clothesline; through it, we spy on a man and a woman on the grass. Discomfiture is an intrinsic component of Ms. Murphy’s aesthetic.

Compositional focal points are skewed and contribute to the tension between strict representation and chilly abstraction. Mondrian could have arranged the cropped and geometric composition of Her Bedroom Wall(2006), with its photos ripped and cut from teen magazines. Who cares about the woman snuggling in Comforter (2007)? The encompassing wave of striped patterning is its pictorial locus. The couple seen inBlankets occupies a space as abrupt and linear as a Barnett Newman “zip” painting.

The objects in Ms. Murphy’s art indicate a distinctly middle-class life. There’s nothing spectacular in her choices of stuff to paint and draw. Christmas lights, pistachio shells, a squirrel skittering in the snow, the dim light emanating from a hot oven—the mundane piques Ms. Murphy’s attention. It’s enough to make us question what it is we take for granted.

Ms. Murphy’s chief and long-running liability is a tendency toward mere cleverness. On the whole, she leans toward complication and toward a thin strain of narrative, but her considerable smarts can get the better of her. The ring-around-the-canvas orchestration of Xmas Lights (2007) is coy rather than revelatory, and the stuttered viewpoints in the multi-canvasSurveillance (2007) are downright annoying. Sometimes self-consciousness is self-defeating.

Still, Ms. Murphy is possessed of remarkable gifts. Her stringent and all but inflexible vision aims for objectivity. Realizing that goal is impossible, of course, but Ms. Murphy comes close enough to make us think twice. Each image serves as testament to Ms. Murphy’s unsettling artistic vision.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 27, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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