Catherine Murphy's first show with Knoedler & Company finds the veteran realist at her most compelling, though — as ever — her work is compellingly odd rather than compellingly beautiful.
She is a tough painter to enjoy, but her unflinching, emotionally neutral realism is extraordinary for the level of its attentiveness. She has a fascinated gaze whose focus is both micro- and macroscopic, dealing with both minute details and broad philosophical issues about perception and aesthetic value in ways that are inexhaustible.
A sense of compulsion trumping pleasure in the response to Ms. Murphy seems to correlate with what you sense must have been the experience of creation. She is an utterly fastidious, acute, and astute realist who never loses track of the essential artifice of her project in rendering complex visual data with deceptively simple pictorial verisimilitude.
The motifs of her seven paintings and four drawings are diverse to the point of perversity, suggesting the kind of mind drawn less to things than to problems. What is consistent across these images is the sense of a fanatical empiricist picking quarrels with the perceived world.
Her subjects include a striped comforter with a sleeper, his or her head just glimpsed at the top of the composition and rumpling the fabric's close-knit stripes; Christmas lights oozing their glow into a night sky; a squirrel keeping watch over winter branches; blankets hanging on the line to dry, with snippets of picnickers again barely spied between them; a mirror held up to a bird in a tree; corners of fashion-plate illustrations pinned to a girl's bedroom wall; a crucifix suspended within a woman's ample cleavage; a pie in the oven; a split log; shelled pistachio nuts and their shells in separate piles on an unfolded napkin.
Each subject is a challenge to the maker and the viewer alike, to see how deeply into the perceived they are willing to go, to think of the implications of this texture, that perspective, this duration, that light.
Sometimes, Ms. Murphy seems intent on setting up conditions for abstraction precisely in order, however, not to capitulate to it. "Comforter" (2007) and "Blankets" (2006) tease out schematic possibilities — the stripes of the first, the color field or (literally) floating lozenges of saturated color in the second. There is a game being played here with art history, with nods to Frank Stella or Kenneth Noland in "Comforter" and Mark Rothko in "Blankets." But to keep up her end of this stylistic duel of observation versus decoration, attention to the perceived world outweighs absorption in painterly activity. It is in these two images that the glimpses of human presence are discreetly intimated beneath or behind. The stripes are a mind-boggling feat of close reading as they acknowledge various creases and follow the sleeper's curves. The dappled surfaces of the blankets have what seem at first to be arbitrary patches of texture, but then register as either the reflections of foliage, or foliage penetrating the blankets as they catch the sun.
The artist's paint handling is possibly the weirdest aspect of her work, because it belligerently steers a resolute course between painterly exuberance and mechanical observation. She is not a photo-realist, imitating the exactitude of a camera or rendering the coldness of a photographic print. But equally, she is unconcerned with the life of paint, in creating tactile equivalencies for the sensations of sight.
The real enigma of her treatment of the perceived world, however, is that for all that, she is neither hyperrealistic nor impressionistic, nor is she so remote from her own facture as to achieve — or seem to want to achieve — total verisimilitude. The Greeks had a concept of ekphrasis, of such extreme realism that, in a famous example, cherries were so perfectly rendered that birds were fooled into pecking at them. With Ms. Murphy, you always know that it is paint — you are not lured into a trompe l'oeil state of suspended disbelief. Her realism is deadpan but handmade.
"Pendant" (2005) could almost be read as a manifesto of this middle road — all the more so for being so provocatively symmetrical a composition, and for teasing out theological implications — the "word made flesh." The wearer's breasts are viewed head-on (so to speak) while the crucifix is balanced between them, its nave casting a shadow between those of the breasts themselves. The arms of the cross ever so gently dent the smooth, tanned flesh that holds it in place. Christ's arms then cast a wishbone shadow that follows the contours of the cleavage behind. The crucifix floats abstractly, yet from a pictorial perspective, quite credibly, popping out to the viewer's necessarily voyeuristic gaze. The gold of the Christ figure's artifice contrasts with the fleshliness of the woman's body, her veins intimating palpable volume. The white dress caught in the corners of the composition adds a third texture to this trinity of metal, flesh, and fabric.
The drawings take Ms. Murphy and her viewers into an even deeper level of sheer depictive obsession. Her graphite has such minute yet specific marks (pinpricks of highly sharpened pencils) that it achieves an otherworldly surface in which you feel the material has been breathed onto the page rather than applied with any intentional force. There is something of the exalted monomania of an old banknote engraver about these images, also recalling the fastidious touch of Vija Celmins.
The drawings have an incredible totality of coverage combined with the restraint of mark making. They are intimidating tours de force. She chooses subjects for herself like a split tree trunk whose innards are exposed, while deep foliage is spied in the narrow gap between these two halves. The level of detail requiring attention in this choice of motif makes you fear for the artist's sanity. In fact, the works recall a level of detail rarely seen since the Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd, who ended his life in an asylum.
But this astoundingly skillful, perplexing exhibition raises enough questions about representation and perception to leave little doubt about the wisdom and togetherness of this remarkable artist.
Until August 1 (19 E. 70th St., between Fifth and Madison avenues, 212-794-6932).