“Winds of Change” Catalogue Essay
Essay by Margaret Winslow, Associate Curator for Contemporary Art, Delaware Art Museum | 2015
“Not less important are the observers of the birds than the birds themselves.”
—Henry David Thoreau from Journal X, March 20, 1858
In her most recent body of work, on view in Winds of Change, Deirdre Murphy has embarked on a fresh scientific exploration of the flora and fauna that have inhabited her canvases for years. In August 2015, Murphy spent the first week of a year-long artist residency at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pennsylvania. The Sanctuary was incorporated in 1938 as the world’s first refuge for birds of prey and as such is an important preserve for the research and conservation of falcons, ospreys, hawks, eagles, vultures, and owls. While there, Murphy fueled her interest in these creatures—obtaining data on migratory routes—and observed the quiet passage of time. Murphy’s fascination with spontaneous and deliberate movements—murmuration and migration—of birds, the relationships between stars in the sky, the construction of a flower, and the structural engineering of power lines inspire her investigations of the natural and constructed world around her.
Murphy is a keen observer of the relationships between the micro and the macro, those points in space that align travel routes to constellations and flight trajectories to wind currents. She approaches this interest with the attentiveness of a scientist, observing, researching, and tracking changes. The shifts that occur—the effects of global warming on raptor migration—are noted but not critiqued, and similarly the industrial patterning created across a morning sky is handled with care and precision devoid of appraisal. Murphy’s paintings link nature’s aesthetics in a manner similar to how a social graph makes users aware of their interconnectedness; the formal similarities are emphasized for the viewer’s contemplation.
Beginning in 2014 with her painting, Seasonal Passage, Murphy incorporated a new formal device to highlight the voids—the interstellar medium— she observes. In this canvas, the artist connects the points between flocking birds, creating polygons that accentuate the mass of clusters moving through the sky. The resulting shape—informed in part by an encounter with Robert Goodnough’s Dark Blue Cluster (1979, Delaware Art Museum)—is further developed in Murphy’s current body of work. The triangles populating Chatter double as both a flock of birds noisily gathered in the trees and the foliage itself in which the birds are nestled. Dawn finds the flock waiting to alight on a telephone wire. In Dreaming of Achill, the floating forms no longer retain a strict correlation to birds and instead can be read as the depiction of wind sweeping over the Irish island.
Murphy also utilizes the bird as a means through which to enter the canvas. Fascinated by Japanese scroll painting, the artist constructs multiple vantage points throughout her compositions. The formal elements—the horizon line, migratory routes, perched birds, and swarming shapes—guide the viewer through the painting from shallow depths in the foreground to infinite spaces beyond. Murphy’s formal means are accentuated by her interest in color theory, and use of complementary hues, as well as variation in mark making between hard-edge shapes and hand-drawn, circuitous lines. Through observing such differences, one is able to take flight through the canvas. Ultimately Murphy’s paintings make visible the wonder of time. Her Fall Migration and Spring Migration mark the passage of hours through the slow advance of pokeweed shadows across the panel’s surface—the shifts in daylight and continuity of perpetual routines. In the exhibition’s title work, Winds of Change, time is suspended among swirling leaves or a gust of wind, held in a moment between action and stasis. Murphy’s canvases capture that tenuous point where journeys past shift to trajectories forward.
"Artifice" Catalogue Essay
Essay by Matt Singer | 2008
For a bird, a tree-limb is a perch — a landing between earth and sky, a setting for rest and observation in an existence defined by airborne arrivals and departures, respite and reconnaissance in a migratory life. Outfitted with a nest, this same tree-limb blossoms into an aviary home — a locus for life with a mate and the cycle of bearing and nurturing young.
Emily Dickinson famously wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all. ” Deirdre Murphy, too, finds promise on the wing. She envies birds their freedom of movement — their “mastery of the air”; their ability to see from widely and wildly divergent perspectives in spectrums of color beyond what is visible to humans; their capacity to change environment when biology or circumstance calls. She admires their matter-of-fact assimilation to man-made environments, and empathizes with them as they persevere and adapt in the face of man-made change.
Rootedness and flight. Home and escape. These are the dualities represented by birds — and the opposing states at the heart of so much existential yearning among humans. Murphy understands life on the move — born in New York City, her peripatetic childhood included formative periods in Paris, France and Manchester, England, as well as points north, south, east, and west across the United States. She’s experienced the pleasures and rewards of wanderlust — as a young adult, she expanded her personal and artistic vistas and experience with a year’s study and work in Japan — and continues to feel its allure. Murphy knows, as well, the drive to build, sustain, and commit to home and family. Since moving to Philadelphia in 1998, she’s married, had a child (Liam, now three), and made her corner of the city a base for life as a working artist and art-educator.
Like Murphy, her subjects — a ranging flock of birds as well as butterflies and one most arresting and arrested deer (more later about this Trickster) — are at home in Pennsylvania. They are native, indigenous, authentic to their locale. Like John James Audobon, Murphy begins by depicting her favored fauna amidst its local flora. Unlike Audobon, she then lets her imagination — and her painterly practice — take flight. Flowers morph into origami. Mountain ranges become A-frame houses become simple strips of folded paper. Her wildlife is vivid, vibrant — and strangely still. This stillness underscores the contrivances of traditional nature painting — Audobon shot his birds before painting them, using wire to prop them into “natural” positions — while staying true to the nature of Murphy’s actual models, most of which are taxidermy specimens of birds studied and sketched at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences and stuffed deer (like the aforementioned Trickster) adorning the walls of Joe’s Bar in Ligonier, Pennsylvania.
Nothing is what it seems in Artifice. With the power unique to an accomplished painter, Murphy creates credible and thoroughly engaging worlds through the force of her talents. With the brave honesty that is the hallmark of a true artist, Murphy is unafraid to shatter the fantasies she’s conjured by reminding us that we are not looking at actual birds, butterflies, houses, and sunsets — that what she’s showing us are representations of these things rendered in paint on canvas.
Professedly “in love with the formal language of painting,” Murphy sets challenges and parameters for herself as she conceives each new work. She sets sight on taboos—that a figure should never be placed at the very center of a composition; that a picture of deer bounding against a sunset sky can only be kitsch — so she can overcome them. She places herself far out on a creative limb so she might reach someplace new, see something new —
always bringing the viewer with her. Murphy’s hope: to have the viewer join her in fully inhabiting the worlds presented in her paintings, then departing these imagined perches to a life of heightened awareness.
Eye to Eye: An Artist's Collaborative Essay
Mark Brosseau, Deirdre Murphy, Kate Stewart, Scott White | 2007
The spirit of improvisation, problem-solving and spontaneity fueled this collaborative project in which three painters and two sculptors embarked on an experimental process in which the individual artist signature hand was transferred to the collective whole. These five artists were each given two pieces of paper, for a total of ten mixed-media drawings. Every two weeks we passed our drawing to another artist in a prescribed order, never to work on a drawing more than once, and always to work on the drawings at different stages in their development. The size, 10" x 10", is portable; the medium is open.
We named this collection as a revisited reference to a children’s game in which a sentence is whispered from one person to the next, usually to end up quite different by the time it reaches the end of the line. This children’s game is most commonly referred to as “Telephone” in the United States, but this same game has been played for over a century and is known by different names in at least thirty languages spoken around the world, from Macedonian to Japanese and Norwegian to Czech. We have chosen to adapt the name of this game in Turkish, Kulaktan kulağa, literally “from ear to ear.” In our case, our drawings were passed from eye to eye, continually modified and expanded by the subsequent artists who adapted and added to them. Whatever “vision” we each started out with was often completely revised and re-envisioned by the end. Any initial intentions or original concepts were altered by the next interpreter, who added new dimensions for the next artist, who would then build additional layers and twists on the work from before. We did not strategize together or collaboratively communicate ideas; the work had to speak for itself as it faced its next architect. Just as in the children’s game, perception is subjective and distinct to each individual, and each intended meaning will change as it filters through another, so that the end result is perhaps a drastically different incarnation from the original concept. This project forced us to relinquish control of our work and leave it to an unknown fate as we passed it on in trust to the next person. Conversely, we each faced the often challenging, mystifying, and problem-solving task of continuing the work presented before us.
The greatest challenge of all was for us to each successfully complete two of the drawings as the final artist in a sequence, integrating into a balanced whole the work of four previous artists in multiple media, without verbal communication with each other, without having viewed the work in any of its previous stages, and to resolve it in a manner that resonated as a complete, cohesive piece without undoing the individuality of each contributor. We believe that through our observation of each work’s evolution, through the tasks of linking disparate artistic elements into a united whole, and through the risk-taking aspect of acquiescing our work – without oversight – to another artist, we have each enhanced our solo practices in furthered introspection and fearless boldness.
This project perpetuates a rich tradition of artist collaboration from the Exquisite Corpse of the Surrealist movement, to the collaborative paintings of Warhol and Basquiat, to the current collaborations of TEAM Shag and the Royal Art Lodge. Through this work, we explored our individual identities as artists and the critical thinking and strategy of working through to a satisfying resolution when presented with an artistic challenge. We hope this work demonstrates the power of the individual, the evolution of a concept, the unexpected surprises in the creative process, and the uniting force – through visual problem-solving – that transforms the disconnected into a collective whole without sacrificing diversity.
Deirdre Murphy: Recent Paintings
Essay by Lily Wei | 2006
Deirdre Murphy’s mostly small, mostly square panels and canvases of vivid, celebratory colors and patterned images blend the constructed and the natural, the art historical and the personal, the fictive and the real in ways that are both festive and poignant. They are distillations of ambiance and mood as Murphy layers and weaves together images of past and present, the commonplace and the exotic, the geometric and the organic in psychologically dense, visually complex orchestrations. Cerulean Warbler, for instance, depicts an elegant blue bird framed by stylized flora and geometric ellipses in hothouse shades that are both brilliant and pale. The bird—a relative of the Emperor’s nightingale, perhaps—is positioned in the foreground while the background drops quickly back to depict a distant Chinese landscape crossed by thin red lines that refer to ancient mappings and migratory routes. The lovely Flower Cloud is filled by several crisply delineated bouquets and ribbons, based on the designs of a kimono, that explode like fireworks, lighting up the Chinese hillside below in a burst of flowers. A building nestled into the hill (Zhang Xin’s Commune Hotel) reflects Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles of integrating architecture into the environment and reiterates one of Murphy’s constant themes: the multi-faceted, intricate relationship between man and nature. Font Hill enlarges the architectural context, presenting a precipitously angled structure (a landmark factory in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania) that reminded the artist of a medieval or Renaissance cloister while the composition of Font Hill is based on a Francesco D’Antonio [is it a painting or fresco?] from 1425. Underlining the identity of painting as a fictive enterprise, instead of real birds, there are origami ones and instead of sky, there are sections of a colorful, pixel-like checkerboard. Her Majesty features a stately ocean liner dry-docked in Philadelphia and evokes a vanished era and immigrant sagas. The vessel, as steeply foreshortened as the factory in Font Hill or as abruptly disproportionate as foreground and background in Cerulean Warbler, is distorted, as space is in all of Murphy’s paintings, reconfigured by imaginative, revisionist memory. The boat also appears to be advancing onto the highway in the foreground as if pointing toward the future and an ongoing journey, offering a narrative of departures that poses questions about home, history, loss and recuperation.
"Bliss of Growth" Catalogue Essay
Essay by Matt Freedman | 2003
Every painting in Deirdre Murphy’s exhibition “The Bliss of Growth,” makes vividly clear the aptness of her title. The phrase, taken from a sanskrit poem, reflects the ecstatic and energetic relationship the artist seeks with her work, but also refers to the rapid evolution of themes in the
paintings themselves. Each is a finely wrought template of experimental gestures, a laboratory of risky choices. The choices are not random, rather they are directed by the artist’s fascination with patterning as it is found both in nature and in design; in culture.
Murphy utilizes a number of strategic approaches to bring “natural” and “cultural” images together; juxtaposing, layering, compressing. She works with a clear conceptual strategy, but her choices are highly intuitive. The paintings are gorgeous, but more than that, they force us to contemplate the terminally ambivalent relationship we hold with the environment around us. We seek to understand what we see (and further, to describe what we see) clearly and without distortion for we suspect that “truth”, by which we mean virtue, depends upon our doing so. At the same time, however, we cannot help but distort, to impose our will. We can never be fully objective for it is in our nature to embroider and enlarge upon what we see-we are driven to decorate, to improve on nature and to create new truths and new virtues.Murphy’s work tell another, interweaving story of her painter’s journey from realist to abstractionist to sly conceptualist, the author of beautiful paintings, brimming with ideas, but ruled by the heart.