Painter James B Murphy presents 'Abstracts' at Lyman Allyn Art Museum
In the end, for all his experiences in journalism, theater, opera, and representational art, it all comes down to a pretty simple proposition for James B Murphy. He's just trying to figure out what he likes — and why he likes it.
Now established as a fulltime painter, Murphy has come to believe this personal quest is best explored, piece by piece, in decidedly non-representational fashion — as per "Abstracts," an exhibition of his work that opened January 25 in New London's Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Running through March 24, the show is the latest in the museum's Near :: New series.
"I'm looking for what I call the virtue of an image," Murphy says by phone from his East Haddam home last week. "I don't know why certain patterns or images are better than others, but they are. Are they actually good or is it just me? I don't know why there's that difference, but it fascinates me. And with each shape or pattern, I get to figure it out all over again."
In "Abstracts," the viewer can discern a few recurring motifs in Murphy's work, though they are by no means defining or restrictive. Working in acrylic or oil on canvas, Murphy seems compelled by crescent or boomerang shapes ("Nuit," "Crescent") as well as ovals and oblong rectangles that appear to hover, isolated in contrasts of bright color against white, dark blue or obsidian backgrounds ("30 Seconds," "Blob Rose"). There are two striking black and white pieces that suggest jagged shards of smoked glass ("Dark Matter 3," "Gravity 1"). The thematically similar works are, for the most part, not grouped together.
An exception and exhibition highlight is the "Five Tumbles" series taking up the east wall. A quintet of identically-sized canvases, equally spaced alongside one another, feature "square within a square" offsets angling slightly to the lower right. The three center canvases boast protoplasmic rectangles in, respectively, orange, red and turquoise splashed across black backgrounds. The two bookend paintings vary slightly in that their central shapes are tattooed by linear patterns suggesting the Boston Celtics' parquet floor.
The exhibit also contains individual works that, while certainly open to the visitor's interpretation, seem to lean towards imagery from humanity or nature with just enough structural form to gently push the viewer's imagination into subjective frontiers ("The Kiss," "Weird Moon").
That Murphy's artistic evolution has culminated in an ongoing exploration of abstracts is the genuinely unanticipated result of many twists along the career path. After graduating from Princeton in 1973, Murphy spent several years as a writer/researcher at Time magazine, which he describes as "a period of incredible experiences and very tough work."
From there, with his wife Alden, they entered an active period in theater. Both were members of The Blue Hill Troupe, an outfit dedicated to performances of Gilbert & Sullivan operas, and Murphy was also writing and producing plays. In 1990, the couple moved to Old Lyme and, missing their Blue Hill connections, put together a one-off production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" — an event that served as the launching pad for the ongoing and well-respected Musical Masterworks chamber music series. And one of the plays Murphy wrote, "Promise," based on an ancient Celtic legend, was later at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre under the helm of longtime Broadway director John Tillinger.
By that point, though, Murphy was well along in the process of becoming a painter — a unexpected tangent that surfaced quite by tragic accident.
"I was producing a play in New York when 9/11 happened," Murphy explains. "Funding dried up, and I completely understood. There were other priorities. No one even wanted to be in New York. I was sitting around doing nothing, career-wise, and Alden said, 'You can draw. Go to (Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts) and take some classes.' And I thought, yeah, why not?"
Murphy started at the most basic level, with an introductory course where he remembers trying to draw crumpled up paper bags. "And it was a lot of fun. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it," he says.
Figure drawing, line of action and classical technique classes followed.
"I had to learn to do live drawings of professional models. I thought it was interesting but very difficult. And I was average at best, but I found that I really loved it and was happy to work hard at it," he says.
His efforts and attitude caught the attention of Diane Aeschliman, then an associate professor of drawing and painting at Lyme Academy who has also served on the academy's board of directors.
"She's a lovely person," Murphy says, "and she took me aside and said, 'You've got the right stuff.' I said, 'I do?' because I didn't know, believe me. And she told me to take every course possible taught by Deane Keller."
Keller was a professor of life drawing and anatomy at the Lyme Academy, and, Murphy says, "Diane was right. If you could get into his classes, you learned. And I did. Over time, I became a confident, working representational artist doing landscapes and portraits."
The mysteries of 'Virtue'
Given that realism and abstract are very different disciplines, both in technique and conception, that Murphy began to focus on the latter came about in an interesting fashion. The more he looked at abstract art, the more it compelled him — and he couldn't figure out precisely why. One day, looking at a drawing he'd made of a woman, he liked a particular curve and, impulsively, cut out a piece of construction paper in that exact shape and started playing around with it to see if he could come up with a look he liked.
"It was instantly addictive," says Murphy, whose voice has a slightly playful and self-effacing quality when he's discussing his work, as though fun and mystery are equal creative components in a different fashion than his earlier efforts at realism. He says, "I'd been doing representational art for 10 years. I'd never taken an abstract course and didn't know much about it, and I think that was a benefit. I didn't have a technique or a way of thinking about it. It was interesting that some images resonated with me and others didn't. I call it 'virtue' — a shape might have virtue, or it might have virtue if I work on it. The work does evolve."
Over time, Murphy has refined the process — cutting, pasting and arranging shapes on paper, playing with Adobe Photoshop, and applying acrylic or oil on canvas or paper — and also began to check out other contemporary abstract work.
"I do look at other artists because I like to know what's out there," he says. "Like with my own work, I'll see an image I really like, and I'm fascinated to know WHY I like it."
A few years back, when he'd begun to assimilate a body of abstracts, Murphy got in the habit of inviting various art professionals from across the region to his studio. One of those who took the opportunity was Lyman Allyn director Sam Quigley.
"He was nice enough to come by and take a look, and that was that," Murphy says. "I didn't expect anything at that point, but a few years later, he called and said they'd like to do a show.
In a statement, Quigley says he'd heard that Murphy had shifted focus to non-representational work and was encouraged by that early studio work: "Beyond painterly aspiration, (Murphy's) aspiration, his confidence and directness has beguiled me and others with increasing urgency in the relatively short time he followed this particular Muse."
Murphy says he's very grateful to the museum for their confidence.
"Visitors will see the cream of the crop," Murphy laughs. "I've learned to keep the work in the studio for a while so I can think about it. I'll think something has virtue when I paint it, and that doesn't always hold up over time. But then others kind of break through, and I can say, 'Yeah, that's looking good.' Some blobs have more character than other. Virtue."
Who and what: James B Murphy, "Abstracts"
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
When: Through March 24; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 1-5 p.m. Sun.
How much: $12 adults, $9 seniors, $7 active military personnel, $5 students, and free for children under 12, members, and New London residents
For more information: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org
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