How does an artist tap into their own creativity? The answer for many artists, ironically, is to severely limit their freedom of choice. For these artists, repetition isn’t something to be avoided, so much as a goad to invention. By setting strict rules as to such things as subject matter, materials, color, and style, they search out the possibilities within purposely narrow artistic universe. As it happens, two artists who fit this working model are currently exhibiting side by side at the Winston Wachter Gallery. Brian Murphy is known as the master of the watercolor self-portrait, while Susan Dory creates abstractions using layers of repeating colored shapes. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has just been to the exhibition, and he joins us with his thoughts.
I’m an art scene regular, so I’m used to walking into galleries where my first impression is that the artist has done essentially the same painting, over and over. Used to it or not, I admit to a bit of a sinking feeling at such moments — isn’t looking at one work going to be just like seeing them all? Will visiting this show be a quick hit? Or, is the artist engaging enough, and deep enough, that I will be able to discover reasons to linger, sharing the artist’s interest and excitement as they probe the possibilities within their self-defined limits? Is something being gained by the repetition besides just creating enough work to fill out a show? Is this art motivated by a genuine spirit of exploration, or simply the necessities of production?
Brian Murphy is a particularly interesting case in point. Since graduating from art school in 1999, he has chosen to focus exclusively on colorful, but spare, self-portraits, floating watery depictions of his face and figure on stark white surfaces, sans clothing, props, or setting. The portraits are sometimes in oil, but more often, and more successfully, in watercolor.
The list of artists who, like Murphy, are known primarily for self-portraiture is not long; Frida Kahlo and Lucas Samaras come to mind. But Kahlo changes costumes, expressions, hair-style, and setting, and there is often a complex narrative subtext; Samaras manipulates photographs to create an enormous variety of effects. Murphy’s range is much narrower, the variations between one piece and the next much less.
If there is one overriding theme in Murphy’s work, it is the permeable boundary between body and self, the way one inhabits, and identifies with, their own flesh. For Murphy, the flesh itself is a particular obsession, never far from his, or therefore our, consciousness. In most of his images, Murphy celebrates and exaggerates his own heaviness, filling out his face with cloud-like pink and ochre paint until it appears inflated, letting the cheeks and features dominate tiny eyes. At the same time, the flesh is depicted with a sort of weightlessness, the edges of the face or body never quite defined, the surrounding air both penetrating and supporting the suspended head. If mind and body are indeed one, then even Murphy’s sustained gaze can never quite penetrate the mysteries of such a diaphanous self, the exact nature of which remains elusive.
In the current exhibit, also featuring a transparent, fading-at-the edges painting style, it is not the head but the body that dominates. The show consists of nine larger-than-life watercolor portraits of the artist standing nude, arms at his side, staring straight ahead. In each work, the head has been shrunk and the body enlarged to grotesque proportions, the trunk bloating outwards with its belly overhanging the misty and disappearing legs, the head a black and pink summit atop the mountainous flesh. And something very odd is going on with that head. The artist has used allowed some of the same liquid paint which describes his face and beard to drip straight downwards across the body, tracing wavering, parallel lines across his skin like the tracks of blood or tears, the liquid collecting in rusty pools at the picture’s curling lower edge. These watery accidents are highly evocative — suggesting at the same time both creation and dissolution, the artist’s bringing himself to life and dissolving that same self as he works.
I’m less sure about the inclusion of all the paintings in the show. Murphy is clearly an artist who thrives on repetition, but wouldn’t it be better to find the best in a series of very similar images rather than hanging all of them in a row? The exhibit certainly lets us in on the artist’s process, but perhaps it’s more than we need to know.
The repetition in the Susan Dory exhibit alongside is of a very different nature. Dory uses the multiplication of a simple motif or module to create swarms of flickering textures, with layer after overlapping layer. In recent shows her main motif has frequently changed, but the underlying concept has stayed the same — complexity through repetition. In the current exhibit what is endlessly repeated are flatly painted rectangles that are rounded at both ends, like oversized (and very elongated) Band-Aids. These pastel-tinted lozenges are arranged in orderly, horizontal rows, creating streams of dashes like lanes of traffic or the flowing of data bits, nearly, but not entirely filling their modest-sized canvas supports. Within such a limited realm, details of color and technique count for a great deal. Dory’s paintings are particularly disadvantaged by reproduction, because it’s only in person that one can appreciate the effects that she creates by the patient building up of the many layers, and the varied treatment of edges. In the painting entitled, "Poole," for example, some of the underlying lozenge shapes — at least six layers back, by my count — are blurry and atmospheric, as though being absorbed into the off-white background or emerging into view. The colors also shift as one moves from front to back, from muted tints of blue, and grey-green, to highly chromatic chartreuse and cerulean. Scattered here and there are much darker strips, whose inclusion gives the picture weight and visual punch.
Our sense that these percussive stripes are in movement is increased in those compositions which, like "Poole," have rows that emerge from one side of the picture but do not quite touch the other. Dory has several pairs of similarly colored and scaled works that contain such movements in converging directions, like two armies about to meet. All the paintings seem to depict only a portion of a much larger event, with slivers of top and bottom rows that continue the pattern, perhaps indefinitely — a universe of orderly (albeit quirky) movement and change, carried on by troops of candy-colored cells. Dory gives us a strong sense of the flow of energy through such a system, but it’s also a world without decay, collapse, or conflict.
I like these paintings, but if viewed quickly they can hover somewhere between the Interestingly Abstract and the Merely Decorative. The painterly smarts which animate their surfaces are not obvious to the impatient browser. Slow painting, like slow food, is work that can best be appreciated over time. In an era when the quick cuts in movies are measured in milliseconds, and America’s collective attention span seems to be getting shorter by the moment, those artists like Dory and Murphy who move forward by exploring the same territory over and over are going against the tide.