Hanging Tales 

Every picture tells a story in Cumberland Gallery's new show

Every picture tells a story in Cumberland Gallery's new show

New works by Sean Dudley and Marilyn Murphy

Feb. 6-Mar. 6 at Cumberland Gallery, 4107 Hillsboro Circle

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; opening reception 6-8 p.m. Feb. 6

For more information, call 297-0296

Much has changed in the Nashville visual arts community in the last two decades. Galleries and museums have come and gone. Artists and arts administrators have taken turns in the spotlight and then made their exits. In this ever-shifting scene, Cumberland Gallery and artist Marilyn Murphy have been among the few constants.

When Murphy moved here in 1980 from her native Oklahoma to accept a faculty position in the art department at Vanderbilt University—a department she now chairs—she quickly became a part of the city’s close-knit visual arts community. “I used to know every single artist in town,” Murphy recalls of the local art scene 20 years ago. “Now I doubt I know a third of them.”

Murphy isn’t one to bemoan the growing number of visual artists in Nashville. In fact, one of Nashville’s newer artists on the block, Sean Dudley, shares the stage with Murphy in the joint exhibition opening at Cumberland Gallery this weekend.

Cumberland Gallery owner Carol Stein recalls meeting Murphy about 18 months after her gallery had opened. “I’m always looking,” Stein says of her search for new artists. “And sometimes you get lucky when someone just comes in, like with Marilyn.” Stein had yet another fortuitous encounter many years later, when Dudley dropped by the gallery and asked her if she would take a look at his art.

Murphy’s work has been featured in countless Cumberland Gallery group shows over the years, and this weekend’s opening marks her fourth solo show there. A Nashville native trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, Dudley first exhibited at Cumberland Gallery in last December’s “Small Packages” show. This is his first solo exhibition at the gallery.

Though they work in different styles and with different media, both Murphy and Dudley share a common goal: They want their paintings to propel each viewer to create his or her own narrative spin. In both artists’ works, the images are just the jumping off point for a story to be played out in the viewer’s mind.

Throughout her career, Murphy has found inspiration in vintage postcards of the 1930s and 1940s, sources from which she extracts quirky elements that eventually turn up as details in her paintings. In one new work, a man reads a newspaper beside a large body of water; in the far distance, a boat approaches. The image of the boat, Murphy says, came from an old photo postcard of a World War I vessel. The graphite-on-paper work illustrates what many feel is Murphy’s most dazzling talent: precision drawing that captures the light and shadow of 1940s film noir. “I think in black-and-white,” she admits. “Even with my paintings, I paint first in black-and-white. Then I go back in with color.”

Falling paper is an image that recurs in many of Murphy’s new works. The artist took the idea from a newspaper photograph of traders on the floor of the Japanese stock exchange shielding their faces from a shower of paper pieces. “I love paper as an object—all kinds of paper, from beautiful rice and rag papers to those old Big Chief tablets,” Murphy says. “Paper can be a lot of things—an idea or an indication of the presence of the wind.”

As with Murphy, Dudley’s creative process is more intuitive than planned. “If I were to go into [creating] a piece with a certain agenda, I’d lose the clarity I’m seeking,” Dudley says of his paintings. “I try to reflect a take on the human body that’s like a landscape. People have so many preconceptions about the body that I try to pull away from any kind of loaded representation.” Thus his paintings zero in tightly on a certain region of the physique—a rounded stomach with a tiny metal stud in the navel, a woman’s face with eyes downcast as if in a trance.

As much as viewers notice the painted surfaces of Dudley’s works, they’ll also be drawn to the non-painted elements: Leather strips, metal studs, tools, and parts of old iron stoves extend from the painted image to create what most people would call a frame. “I don’t think of it as framing so much as I do bringing other elements into the piece,” he says, “although originally it did begin as a way of keeping the integrity of a piece by keeping people from framing it themselves. Some people have even said of my work that it isn’t really painting but sculpture with painted parts. I don’t agree with that, but the lines are blurred.”

In one of Dudley’s works, rusted metal wrenches extend outward from a painting of a woman’s face. The effect is not so much a frame as it is an extension of the woman’s features, rendering her a Medusa-like creature. In another work, rippling shapes of metal surrounding the painted surface reinforce the undulating lines of a woman’s upper torso, arms crossed over her breasts, long curved fingers spreading across her shoulders.

While both Murphy and Dudley base their paintings on realistic images, the implications of narrative content create a feeling that something very interesting—perhaps unusual—is going on beyond the picture frame. Both artists prefer leaving the specifics of that activity up to the viewer, though. “I want to create a fertile ground so people can come to the work and respond in their own way,” Dudley says.

“Art is an adventure,” Murphy agrees. “The viewer has to bring themselves to the work. I don’t ever want to tell everything—or have the viewer know everything I have in mind.”

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