A World in a Grain of Sand: Catherine Murphy

Polka Dotted Dress oil on canvas 52" × 52" 2009

Polka dots on a dress, a paper snowflake, a cake in an oven—in Catherine Murphy’s art, small subjects  have deep significance. “I did a drawing once of a pile of dirt I had swept up on the floor,” she says, “and what it resembled most was the solar system.”

I've loved Catherine Murphy's work since the early 80's, when I came across one of her early paintings at the Hirshhorn Museum. It was a large, complex scene involving several figures and a sweeping view of a cityscape. I remember the astonishing detail, but also a sense of atmosphere from slightly softened forms. Since then, her work has become progressively more limited in focus, less atmospheric, and more obsessively detailed.

Murphy says that what first attracts her to a subject is its formal qualities- for example, a pleasing geometric shape. Yet she paradoxically states that her main concern is not with the subject's abstract qualities, but with the thing itself, and consequently with its "narrative", or metaphorical overtones. 

Another of Murphy's aims is to have her work be an antidote to the camera. Instead of capturing a moment in time, she often spends 2 or 3 years on a painting. She shows us her deep knowledge of her subject, and therefore makes us realize the depth and complexity of every small thing around us.

Blankets oil on canvas 58"x84" 2006

Snowflake oil on canvas 52"x52" 2012

 Studio Shelves graphite on paper 21" × 23.5" 2008

Oven Light graphite 29 5/8" x 37" graphite 2008

Here are some of my favorite Catherine Murphy quotes:
I have no patience.
The power of these setups lies in the narrative. Not literary narrative, but real narrative. Not a narrative like “Washington Crossing Delaware,” but a narrative based on metaphor. I can’t describe it to you, but it is a narrative.

For years I said to myself, “No, you can’t do that. That’s too much, that’s over the top.” And finally I said, “Who the fuck cares if it’s over the top?”  
 Catherine Murphy 


  1. Unique and very different...Thanks for sharing ( :

  2. I find it interesting that she says she has no patience and yet her work proves otherwise. "The Polka Dotted Dress" is amazing. I like the concept of taking an object and through her composition it relates as something else. And, her last quote ...... LOVE it! Thanks for another introduction to an artist of whom I was unaware.

    1. Yes Linda, I also found it interesting that she thinks she has no patience. She may have meant that she has no patience for things other than her painting, or that she wishes her paintings took less time but sticks with them anyhow.

  3. Wonderful! I especially like that last quote. Thanks so much for sharing this - what an incredible artist.


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