at Artemisia Gallery

The painting style of Chicago artist Pat Murphy is so ferocious you can practically hear it roaring and snarling as you enter the room. The bold brush strokes and bright colors of these oils on stretched linen and watercolors on paper are only a prelude, however. For it is the monolithic expression created by a successful blending of personal, political, and art historical themes that gives this show its true power.

Artemisia is an artist-run cooperative gallery divided into several exhibition spaces, each featuring a different show. Murphy’s five oil paintings and 15 watercolors hang in a room to the right of the main exhibition area. In contrast to the polished presentations of the wood-framed works under glass in some of the other rooms, Murphy’s pieces are displayed sans packaging. The absence of such familiar, authoritative devices as frames, pedestals, and Plexiglas seems appropriate to the work’s raw energy. Hung in simple linear fashion around the room, the medium- to large-size oils take up two walls and part of a third; the smaller watercolors, sometimes arranged one above the other, occupy the remaining space. Labels and title sheets have been dispensed with, since each piece has a title painted into some area of the composition.

Certainly the most forceful–even assaultive–of the paintings is The Tiger Is at the Door. Featuring the profiled head and gaping, slavering jaws of an enraged tiger on the right side and several roughly painted lines suggestive of a window and doorway on the left, this picture is a direct attack on the sorry state of society. Recalling the exaggerated, confrontational style of political cartoons and graffiti art, the tiger has been outlined vigorously in eccentric black strokes and filled in with fiery hues of red, yellow, and orange. Numerous phrases have been written in arbitrary areas of the tiger’s head, phrases like “Earth-Soul Pollution,” “Corrupt Religious Leaders,” and “Everything Must Be Given Up.” Single words and short phrases naming important issues of the day also appear: “AIDS,” “Rape,” “Nuclear War,” and “Homeless,” for example. From the middle of the painting’s left edge, a long yellow stripe bearing the slogan “Faith Is Your Airplane” runs across the left half of the composition and smacks into the red flame of the tiger’s wide-open mouth. The background is green with several black crosshatch marks along the upper edge and black directional lines erupting from the purple window shape near the upper left corner.

A symbol of society’s masses, the furious, problem-laden tiger devours the banner of faith, indicating the mood of a public no longer willing to accept the religious right’s platitudes and threats about the hereafter. Life-endangering problems exist on earth right now, and they must be dealt with decisively right now. Faith without action offers no solutions. The airplane slogan could also imply the involvement of the religious right (as represented by Ronald Reagan) in the prodigious defense spending required to build weapons like the Stealth bomber.

Musee Rodin, Hall of Stone offers a caustic mix of feminism, environmental politics, and comment on art history. The left section of this composition, which is divided roughly into thirds, caricatures Rodin’s famous statue of two embracing lovers, The Kiss. Murphy’s version portrays the male lover’s arms wrapped in three tight octopus loops around the female so that she is smothered and invisible from the waist up. The phrase “What We Have Done to the Perfect Earth” runs sideways along the picture’s left edge. The right side of this section shows a writhing, multicolored tree trunk that looks diseased. The middle and right thirds each show a roughly rendered museum interior with a bust labeled “Ruler of Earth,” while a branch of the diseased tree flashes through each interior like lightning. This painting seems to point out that the same patriarchal system that oppresses women and ruins the environment also selects the (male) artists who will be installed in history books and museums as incomparable geniuses. Only in this century have people begun to question the glaring absence of women in art history’s dusty tomes.

In light of these angry critiques, the rhetorical question asked in the last of the five oil paintings is poignant: “What Is the Point of Being Good?” Compositionally much simpler than the others, this picture is a close-up of a mysterious, trench-coated, hat-covered female with sad blue eyes. A faint but unmistakable stroke of red begins around her collarbone and flows quietly down her blue gray coat to the bottom of the picture. This expressive self-portrait works on personal and symbolic levels: it asks eloquently why any of us should choose to “be good.”

The bold, agitated lines and intense colors of the oil paintings translate remarkably well into the watercolors that complete the show. Murphy’s aggressive artistic sensibilities have electrified this traditionally delicate medium, giving these small pieces a vitality like that of works by Matisse and the fauvists. Conversely, the lighthearted spontaneity of watercolor seems to have softened Murphy’s thematic concerns, for in this group we see more personal words and images as well as those that continue the political critique. Among the former is Sensuality Is Everywhere, which depicts a bottle of champagne to the left of a reclining nude. Beyond the nude, a couple of rooftops loom large and crowd in close, baking in the warmth of afternoon sunshine. The palette of clear oranges, yellows, pinks, violets, and blues creates a joyful bouquet, repeated in most of the other watercolor pieces. The active, sometimes frenetic contour lines remain but are much thinner and more fragile than in the oils.

Murphy’s work is not only visually stimulating but sincere and unfettered. The themes, however varied, converge and blend because they have been deeply considered and felt. It may be that cool, slick theoretical work has held the spotlight for some time now, but Murphy makes no apologies for her hot, brash, confrontational style. It isn’t intellectually trendy and it may not get her name in Gardiner’s newest edition of Art Through the Ages, but it is the informed work of a true artist and a free spirit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.