Dancing on the Edge | Michelle Murphy at 2731 Prospect
You may have seen Michelle Murphy’s work recently in the NEO Geo exhibition at the Akron Museum of Art, fitting comfortably amongst artists that use geometry and formal elements as a means of expression. Indeed, Murphy does have definite connections to the famed Op Art school of thought espoused by Julian Stanczak and others at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the 60s (a CIA graduate herself, her homages to Albers and Riley demonstrate something of a kinship). But to me, I never felt comfortable seeing her work in this extremely formalist context, because their brand of glorification of geometry for geometry’s sake diminishes one of the most exciting and challenging aspects of her work – the content. And that’s probably the best thing about her new show Shimmering Schemata at 2731 Prospect – this exhibition gives the viewer a chance to revel, even bask in the many and varying ways she toys with viewers’ perceptions. Murphy carefully constructs her images using eye-shadow compacts, beauty tools, lipstick, fake nails, and sometimes a bit of optical trickery, to comment on the commodification of beauty culture, and the body politics related to the industry of beauty, with an added dash of humor to boot.
This exhibition contains old work and new, and was selected and arranged by both the artist and Lauren Davies, the curator/owner of 2731 Prospect. While at first glance it may seem a bit haphazard, upon further inspection there is a definite dialog in this hanging, whether intentional or not. Her new work speaks to the old, builds upon it, challenges it, and at times outshines, as with Self Intersecting Parallelogram (above, 2016). Here Murphy has taken her experiments with eye shadow compacts to the next level of geometric instability – the lush surface texture of the pigment is disrupted by some very deliberate digital interventions. This seems like the logical next step in a process she started with her work featured in NEO Geo, and when I spoke to Murphy in a recent interview, she agreed: “The more I work with this idea and process, the more I try to challenge myself so I can see how you would find an evolution of geometric instability. I want the work to become more and more complex, and I believe my viewer/audience deserves a progression for viewing and thinking about my work.”
And indeed, works like Structural Degradation (2015) have a level of complexity heretofore unattained by her earlier, perfectly rectilinear renditions of eye-shadows (some of which are also on view in this show). Here Murphy takes a very deliberate digital “hand” to the piece, carving out a secondary structure of sorts, that gives the work an added depth and optical contortion, while still maintaining the lovely, lush, and attractive textural quality of her photographs. This is mainly achieved by the exclusive use of metallic paper for her prints, which contains real silver, and has a glossiness beyond a normal gloss finish. Murphy says she uses it because “it provides a similar attraction and surface that can be found where the makeup itself is sold. It’s intended to make you feel like you are viewing a brand new car or fresh manicure.” And this is exactly what I love about Murphy’s work, while you can enjoy it on a purely formal level, there is no escaping the fact that her subject matter was originally found in the aisle of a drug store, where rows and rows of make-up are displayed in shiny, well-lit tableau, deliberately maintained by corporations to convince me to spend $12 on lipstick. Murphy’s references are sometimes subtle, and at other times far more literal. But more on that later.
One could try to break this exhibition down into a few sets of concepts/techniques, or try to locate patterns or emergent themes, but Murphy is quick to destabilize any easiness in that regard. One of the newest works in the show, At the Edge of Focus (2016), seems like a bit of a departure. It’s a simple composition, and fairly abstract: A large, blurry cloud of magenta hovers inconspicuously on the corner of a white plane. I don’t know what I’m looking at, so I resort to other viewing tactics, and inevitably try to make sense of it formally. When I asked Murphy about this piece, she admitted that this is a new technique:
“It’s true – these are a bit of a departure in the way in which the work was produced. In these I challenged myself to exploit the camera’s inability to document, meaning where my lens fails at creating a recognizable representation of the initial object. I am excited by how the lipstick becomes a mirage and almost entirely unrecognizable, but in contrast remains a glowing barrier in the foreground.”
It’s lipstick? I had no idea – and I do love that even when her subjects are basically unrecognizable, it still points back to the packaging and marketing of beauty products, in this case “consumer attraction and repulsion”. But without knowing that I am looking at lipstick, I’m not sure that it’s as successful as some of her other works that border on the unrecognizable, teetering on the edge, without going completely off into the non-objective. It’s that dance between the two that creates some wonderful tension.
Another brilliant aspect of Murphy’s work is her clever use of titles. In Magnetar (2016), Murphy shows a swirling vortex of elliptical lines, casting a grid over the surface reminiscent of a map. In case you didn’t know, a magnetar is a neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field. These frighteningly magnetic dead stars pull in everything around them at insane speeds, basically dissolving objects into cosmic nothingness. It is not surprising that Murphy would take up astronomy as subject matter, as she spent 11 years as a PR photographer at the NASA Glenn Research Center (you can see some of the work she made at NASA here in Popular Photography). As Murphy explains, astronomy is a gateway to some pretty big questions – you know, the existential kind:
“I often think about what we are actually made of, and how we consider ourselves amongst each other in culture. Are we made of stardust? Who is allowed to go to Space and why? Astronomy and science allows us to investigate origins of our own physical materials. I believe art has that power too but art also reminds us to question the framework.”
I will admit that I love when artists use the titles of their works to their advantage. I see it as another level of dialogue and means with which to engage the viewer, sometimes hinting to deeper meanings, and other times, to intentionally point you the wrong way. It seems that Murphy likes to use titles in this way – so I asked her about Catatonic Foundation (2016), the most geometrically unstable work in the show, and the closest to traditional Op Art with its swirling mess of black and white lines that do that thing to your eye, you know the one, when you think you it’s moving, but you know it’s not. So if you break the title down – ‘Catatonic’ implies the psychological condition, and so I am thinking of those swirling black and white devices employed by psychiatrists back in the day – an obvious visual parallel. And ‘Foundation’ makes me think of make-up first, but it could also mean groundwork, infrastructure, or support. These kind of tantalizing games can be played with most of her titles, and Murphy accedes their significance:
“I spend an embarrassing amount of time conceiving my titles, but I absolutely love the process. I save the title writing for last, it’s the cherry on top. In my teens and twenties, I was a casually serious musician (though I have never been incredibly talented at music). One of my favorite parts about music aside from performing as the lead singer, was writing lyrics to match or to waffle around a melody. Titles are the equivalent to lyrics in this way, they can work directly with the melody and mood or can contrast it to create a dissonance.”
And as for the title Catatonic Foundation, Murphy admits that it directly relates to hypnosis and the popularization of Op Art. Score.
Murphy’s work has always walked a fine line between the objective and the subjective, as she says in her artist’s statement: “It is the intersection between working formally and conceptually that interests me most.” This constant toying between the purely formal and recognizable is a hallmark of her practice, and hints to a larger artistic dialogue – Should one focus on technique or content? Murphy admits that she’s not sure:
“I think the strongest forms of art are intellectually and aesthetically engaging. This sounds like basic requirements for successful art but in practice they can be at odds with each other. It spins off into further questions about aesthetic significance and hierarchy, subjective perspective, etc. Can you create the message of dissonance with homage or assimilation? I find myself on the fence of these debates, and believe in order to carry a question, especially a difficult question…I have to use a visual language which is attractive even to the people working behind the Media machine itself. My work can be seen as striving towards beauty itself or it can be seen as a revisionist response through ‘brandalism’. I hope it’s seen as both.”
And are Murphy’s experimentations successful in that regard? I think so.
For example, take a look at the image Separators Together (2016). Here she very literally uses a beauty tool – separators (you know, those foamy contraptions that hold your toes apart while your toe nail polish dries), to make a very formal point, while simultaneously using a recognizable commercial product, with a very tongue-in-cheek title. The separators are carefully arranged in a grid, each quadrant a different exercise in the geometric possibilities of her medium. But it’s the absurdity of the exercise that is humorous to me – I’m imagining Agnes Martin in a nail salon for some reason. I love that her work makes a connection between the high art connotations of formalism and the low brow world of cheap commercial beauty supplies, and everything that that juxtaposition implies.
In Face Paint / Finger Paint (2015), Murphy similarly dances between formalism and content – here emphasizing process perhaps more than in her other photographs, as Murphy explains:
“This work was created using lipstick with my fingers, and high quality painters tape for masking the geometric shapes. I created shapes upon shapes with the tape and smudged gradients of vibrant lipstick colors, until I felt satisfied with the composition and then decided to create fingerprints onto paper to reveal my hand. It was a very messy process up until the photograph was taken.”
I love that the title and messy method hint to childish pursuits, face-painting, or even putting on make-up as a young girl – but the final composition is hardly juvenile, calling to mind the careful constructions of Malevich – one of his uber-non-objective Suprematist pieces, say. And to me, that’s hilarious. Okay, so it’s hilarious in a very “inside baseball” kind of way, and not everyone will get the joke, but I don’t care. Her work can be viewed in any number of ways, by any number of people – and whether you are simply enjoying the colors and composition, or thinking about the ways in which beauty is marketed to women, or laughing at a thinly veiled visual pun, in Shimmering Schemata, there’s something for everyone.
Michelle Murphy: Shimmering Schemata is on view at 2731 Prospect through July 30, and Murphy will be giving an Artist Talk at the gallery on Saturday, July 23 at 2pm.