Surrealistic Kitchen 

Major show puts Vandy prof Murphy's dark humor under a bright light

Major show puts Vandy prof Murphy's dark humor under a bright light

No sooner does the Frist Center take down one show dedicated to the work of a comic artist with Tennessee ties—Nashville's own Red Grooms—then it installs another, in this case the mid-career survey of Marilyn Murphy. Originally from Tulsa, Okla., Murphy came to Nashville to join the art faculty at Vanderbilt, where she teaches still. This exhibit brings together a generous sample of paintings, drawings and prints from throughout her career.

Taking Murphy's works singly, a menacing tone might hit you first. A lot of the images include fires or tornadoes, and shadows gather around the margins of the central characters. However, when viewed as a group, you see a constant thread of wordplay, puns and absurd settings. A fire bursts out of a romaine lettuce and black olive salad. What is it called? "Blazing Salad," of course. A man works on the mechanical innards stuffed into something shaped like a thick sausage. "Like a Clockwurst Orange." An image of an art deco motel surrounded by balloons puns on Murphy's own name: "The Morpheus Motel." In other images, an absurd setting establishes the tone. The two "Lawn Bowlers" wear perfect white outfits and roll their balls out onto a perfect green lawn, seemingly oblivious to the raging fire just on the other side. People dive into mud pumps and car engines, or a coffee cup and its contents hang suspended in mid-fall.

Even an image that deals with a transcendent vision does so through the setup of a joke. "Hildegard and the Southern Cross" shows a woman, Murphy presumably, looking up into the Southern Hemisphere sky above the Australian outback, where she sees a vision of Hildegard von Bingen's Cosmic Egg, a Christian mandala that represents the cosmos through several layers of four-quadrant symbolism: earth/air/water/fire, sun/moon/earth/stars. It is a beautiful idea, looking up into the unfamiliar sky and being dazzled to such an extent that the lustrous image of Hildegard's mandala comes to mind. However, the woman stands there surrounded by a tent that has collapsed. You imagine that the tent fell down, woke her up and forced her to stumble out from underneath it. This bit of slapstick was the motive that got her outside where she could have this vision.

Comparing Murphy to Grooms is instructive. Where Grooms draws raucous humor from the streets around him and generates loud images, Murphy's humor and images are quieter, more of private thoughts and dreams than of the street. She locates most of her images in domestic settings (kitchen, dining room, home workbench) or clean workplaces like a classroom or telephone operator's station. Grooms depicts people as he sees them, but Murphy dresses her characters in outmoded clothes of the '40s and '50s, setting the figures as types even if they are based on real models or her memories. This is similar to the way people who appear in our dreams become transformed into a type, a symbol of something else.

Darkness looms in Murphy's paintings and drawings. She often sets her images on pitch-black, undifferentiated backgrounds. The colors are muted in many of the works, and one central series barely gets past black and white. The nocturnal, dampened lighting is the lighting of dreams, where everything occurs in a degree of dimness and the dream consciousness does not fill in all the detail.

Dreams have a lot in common with jokes. Freud argued that joke-work involves a process similar to dream-work in constructing meaning. Both connect logically unconnected things and violate taboos, and can express seemingly inexpressible sexual desire. Dreams and jokes substitute meanings to bring out what has been suppressed, and they thwart censorship, whether that comes from the structures of consciousness in the mind or from social convention in waking life. An awareness of the processes of suppression seems important in Murphy's work. The models' dress sets so many of the images in the mid-20th century, a time when conformity ruled as a cultural value. Her women work away at their domestic tasks like toasting bread and decorating custard, but flames break out or glower below the surface.

The mechanisms of suppression come into play in visual terms in several nearly black-and-white paintings ("Rope Climbers," "Ascension," "Table Fire," "Home Cooking"), where a red or pink undercoat is visible but smothered by the black-and-white surface. The paintings seem capable of bursting forth, and do so in stages. In "Table Fire," a woman holds a match that has lit a sort of phantom fire on the table with no visible fuel, as if it had ignited a pool of lighter fluid or alcohol. Murphy renders the flames in white and gray with pink at their edges. "Home Cooking" shows a woman putting a small house into a spotlessly clean oven (or taking it out). Most of the image is cast in black-and-white, but the oven coils glow orange, as do the windows of the house, a fire apparently raging inside that could blow off the miniature roof.

One of the nice things about this show is its organization, which delineates distinct phases in Murphy's work. She seemed to go through a period in the late 1980s where she held the surface palette of her works to black and white. Many of her paintings break into color after that. Flames burn against dark backgrounds, most notably in "Cane Fire," from 1994. The image of sugar cane fields being burned off in Australia recurs in other pieces, but this painting stands as one of her most straightforward. I found no pun here, no characters dressed in old-fashioned clothes or engaging in out-of-context acts. It simply shows the power of one of the basic elements of nature, jumping off the wall with intense color and contrasts.

This exhibit shows an artist who has produced remarkably consistent work. Outside of the earliest pieces in the show from around 1980, she draws most heavily from a few pools of imagery—pre-1960 domestic scenes, art deco buildings, and wind and fire. She typically locates her paintings and drawings in the dim nighttime of dreams, and engages freely in small jokes and puns at the same time that more ferocious forces boil.

While the mid-career perspective reveals an arc in Murphy's work, having so many of her pieces together may detract from them. Seeing a salad go up in flames can surprise or amuse you, but seen with several other images of fire igniting where it doesn't belong, the idea gets repetitive. (In addition to "Blazing Salad," you have, for example, "Table Fire," "Terrible Custard" and "The Generator.") Many artists do work and rework the same images. As a viewer, you want to see that similar images gain power through accumulation, or that each iteration adds something to your understanding of what the artist captures. The works in this show do not do this convincingly.

The work has a modesty to it. It doesn't try to encompass the entire world, and even grand celestial visions come within the almost apologetic setting of a collapsed tent. The pieces seem guarded, concerning themselves mostly with what goes on in a private space, wrapped in jokes that give you an opening to not take things seriously. Costumes and the muted colors further distance the images.

The lack of pretension in Murphy's work has great appeal, but it also comes across as a lack of ambition, and that is a problem within the context of a large show in the solemn museum setting. When a body of work gets this presentation, you look for it to reach well beyond itself and push your thoughts and experience into new realms.

To some extent, the imagery itself is overfamiliar. To contrast images of conventional female domesticity with something more uncontrolled—a metaphor for hidden drives and the fragility of conventionality—can be a cliché at this point. Nonetheless, it remains a common theme, no doubt because the interplay of convention with desires and person-hood remains problematic. For an artist of Murphy's generation, the images probably do come from personal memory rather than ironic appropriation or nostalgic imagining. Even assuming personal relevance to the artist, as a viewer I need the images to be more than familiar. That's where the constrained quality of the work kicks in: the understated tone along with several distancing mechanisms discourages broader associations or personal connections.

This show gives an extremely vivid sense of Murphy's artistic signature. She has a distinct voice. However, the cumulative experience of her work falls a bit flat. It led me to think of writing that makes clever, sharp observations, states them well, but doesn't go very far with them.


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