[First published in 1990 as a catalogue essay for a solo exhibition of Murphy's work that Eyland curated for the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in Halifax, Canada.]
[A minister of the crown] told me, in a great fright, that thirty thousand French had marched from Acadie to Cape Breton ---Where did they find transports? (said I) 'Transports! (cried he) I tell you, they marched by land---' By land to the island of Cape Breton? 'What! is Cape Breton an island? Certainly. 'Ha! are you sure of that?' When I pointed it out in the map, he examined it earnestly with his spectacles; then, taking me in his arms, 'My dear C---! (cried he) you always bring us good news---Egad! I'll go directly, and tell the king that Cape Breton is an island---' -- Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett, (p.118)In the 18th century, when Smollett wrote Humphrey Clinker, Cape Breton was enjoying its zenith as a centre of world attention, even if most Europeans were dimly aware of its geography. The Island is now connected to the rest of world by telephones, satellite dishes, fast food and a fixed link causeway, by, in other words, much contemporary urban culture. But how many know as much about Cape Breton today as Smollett knew in 1771?
The island is full of visual artists. Many are locals, like Charlie Murphy. During the late 60s and early 70s, when scores of urban artists decided to move as far away from the city as a Volkswagen could take them, a few landed in Cape Breton. American refugees of the Vietnam era became a demographical force in Cape Breton's visual arts scene.
Given the diverse origins of its many artists, Cape Breton could hardly match preconceptions about its art being 'primitive' or even 'rural'. John Nesbitt settled there after having lived in Toronto and New York. He makes large, playful, brightly-coloured abstract aluminum sculptures. New Yorkers Robert Frank and partner June Leaf have a house there (since 1969). Frank, the author of the beat-era photography classic, The Americans, is also a very well-known film and video maker. Leaf is best known for her anthropomorphic machines and her expressionistic painting.
Gaelic activist/artist Ellison Robertson lives in Cape Breton as does the painter/sculptor/photographer Carl Zimmerman, both of whom are, like Murphy, native Cape Bretoners. The Québecois abstract painter Jacques Hurtuboise and many other visual artists like Neil Livingston and Susan Mills either summer in Cape Breton or make their permanent homes there.
Charlie Murphy was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1 March 1946 and grew up there. He graduated from Saint Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, in 1969, trained as a biologist and physical education teacher. He began teaching school, mostly in Nova Scotia, but also for a time in northern Manitoba.
Murphy's self-apprenticeship in art making began during the 1970s in photography and culminated in a collaboration with Robert Frank as his teacher in 1976. Murphy began to incorporate collage, painting, drawing, and photographs into constructions under the influence of both Frank and his wife June Leaf. He has since developed into a collage and assemblage artist best described as a 'painter' rather than a 'photographer'.
Robert Frank and Murphy have become close, close enough that Murphy makes the odd reference to Frank's work in the gathering maturity of his own painting (see My Nephew Terry in Room 525, cat. 4, and O Daddy O, cat. 17). Frank visited Murphy during the latter's 1981 stint in Northern Manitoba:
Mabou Nov. 2 1981If anything links Frank's work with Murphy's after fifteen years, it might be summed up in the sentiment shown in this letter, a feeling about the subject matter of ordinary people. A 1951 statement by Robert Frank also seems akin to Murphy's feelings. People are photographed:
"...not because they are unusual, but because they are typical of people I had seen before, almost anywhere in the city."
- (Previously unpublished introduction to the 1951 series submission to Life Magazine, quoted on p. 92 of Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia.)
Murphy received a Canada Council Arts Award in the late seventies, two years after the brief period of study with Frank (quite a coup for a mostly self-taught artist). The funded New York stay involved him in printing for photographer Louis Faurer (one of Frank's oldest collaborators and friends) in preparation for Faurer's Guggenheim Fellowship. The following year Murphy attended workshops at the international photographic symposium, Venezia '79, Italy, an experience he rates as formative. Beginning in 1979, he developed the series Handouts NYC (cat. 1), My Mother was an American, and other series in Manitoba (1981-82), in Toronto (1985-87) and in Nova Scotia. Trips away from Cape Breton began with that important first foray to New York in 1978-79:
...It seems that I was following in the footsteps of artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg... I had worked with multiple and single images before in Cape Breton where I was motivated by the presence of Robert Frank and June Leaf. That work and the New York environment stimulated me to continue...Murphy's work has changed radically since the Handouts NYC piece. Contrast Murphy's older statement with the following statement, which reads like an introduction to his work of the 1980's:
Emotions, thought stifled, come out in a rural area. You see a lot more in a rural area, you get into the whole make-up of the community. In a small town, the religious conflicts and sexual conflicts come out.... I like the contrast - living in the country and being in the city.Murphy has developed a hinge between the worlds of urban and rural art in his work. The imagery often portrays an urban malaise from within Murphy's essentially rural perspective.
Murphy uses black and white photographs, mostly taken in urban settings like Toronto, which he collages into painted and sculpted surfaces. Some of these surfaces appear to be slung together in an almost brutal way. The images often make up a melancholic scene, as if the carnival has just just left town, and the locals are resuming their ordinary lives.
The work can look like urban punk art as much as rural 'folk' assemblage. Most of Murphy's recent collages are constructed with paint, staples, all kinds of construction materials, and whole photographic prints. Sometimes these prints-pasted-on-the-canvas are identical, appearing like quickly assembled out takes from some Canadian documentary. Murphy has jokingly referred to himself as a 'repressed film maker'.
(Although this exhibition gathers together works made since 1979, the emphasis is put on Murphy's work of the last five years, work which marks the beginnings of a maturity in Murphy's painting. "I first started to make bigger works in 1983," says Murphy "More colorful and more personal in a way - that's when I felt it was coming together in a more coherent way.")
In S (cat. 30), three photos of a woman standing next to a Globe & Mail box overlap, strengthening what we might take to be a representation of motion as in a Muybridge series, or a movie. (As we look at S, we may be reminded that looking at a random set of five or six frames from a movie shows little evidence of motion.) Pasted below the photograph of the woman are pictures of watchers, offhand shots of people looking at something.'off camera'. Attached to the bottom half of the painting are photographs of two young people lazily watching something - probably just life passing by: Murphy watches urbanites watch each other. Ordinary people doing ordinary things are not glamorized but are nevertheless celebrated in the work.
In the work Bridge (cat. 28), a central photograph shows a man (cropped at the shoulders in the photograph) holding the hand of a small, sad-looking boy. In the background, a bridge or overpass is visible. Swirling around this central photograph are four photographs of an identical group of three people who look to be surveying the landscape through which the man and child walk. There is a snap-shot ordinariness in the photographs. None of the subjects looks to be in anyway posed; they appear indifferent or unaware of the photographer. An I-beam shaped bridge column is echoed in the I-beam shaped strips of metal surrounding the man and boy. Paint and metal are used to delineate a bridge form across the length of the painting. A yellow, an orange, red and blue square each take positions at the four corners of the canvas, looking like formal stabilizers for the maltese-cross form made up by the collaged photographs.
Murphy's comments about his childhood seem to make a particularly poignant connection with Bridge: "As a kid I remember seeing a picture of my father and myself at an old artillery site in Sydney, a photo with a gulf in between us taken when I was a teenager. Seeing that gulf between the two people who look so 'together' in the photo: it's the gulf between people in family snapshots. You see people together but you don't know what's going on. Often the snapshot does not reveal the truth about people. I try to liberate the truth in the photograph..."
Release Me (fig. 2), is a very recent work which I see as being exploitative and sexist. Murphy and I have agreed to disagree about this work. (Adjectives like 'exploitative' and 'sexist' do not spring to mind in the presence of most of Murphy's art) At the left is a figure (a self-portrait) which is made up of a collage of photographs. Murphy presents himself as a composite of images he has taken. On the right is a photograph of a naked female model, hands and knees on a stand, looking at a camera being placed under her by a male photographer. To me, this work plays with an insensitivity to women which is inherited from the discipline of photography itself. Issues of voyeurism and feminism which are at the heart of current photographic discourse cannot be positively addressed in works like Release Me. The work does unabashedly record Murphy's relationship and feelings about aspects of the practice of photography, but the result becomes a symptom as much as a description of a problem. (This work was not permitted to be shown in the exhibition by the Director of the gallery, Mary Sparling, but at her suggestion it is reproduced in the catalogue.)
Work by the largely self-educated Murphy, with its rough-hewn look, plain-folks subject matter, and rural location of production, might be unproblematically read as being a kind of folk art. Several contemporary Nova Scotian artists are redefining what it means to make regional work within an official culture which defines local art as 'folk art'.
Like the work of Nova Scotian artists Gerald Ferguson, Janice Leonard and Eric Walker, Murphy's painting does have a certain folk art ambience about it - an ambience which can be misleading. Folk art can be approached through academic, pop culture and formal routes, some of which are explored by these artists, but none of them is trying to 'become' a folk artist.
Contemporary art-school-educated artists like Leonard, Walker and Ferguson explore the imagery and techniques of folk art for many reasons, no doubt partly in critical response to its status as the region's 'official art'. They make work that is clearly from a particular place, which is made under specific conditions, and which exists within a self-conceived historical and cultural framework. They attempt to reclaim and inherit what has been sanitized, commodified and appropriated by mass media and tourist culture.
Janice Leonard's recent paintings evoke her rural upbringing in Paradise, Nova Scotia, and her sense of the dissolution of her childhood village in the Annapolis Valley over the past thirty years as the amenities gradually disappear, the automobile encourages travel to far-off jobs, and the corner store closes down in favor of the consolidated superstore... In Leonard's recent work, the bucolic myth of preindustrial Nova Scotia meets the 'painterly' painter's concern with a fluid painting style. Leonard's earlier work of the 1980's, however, used collage and assemblage techniques similar to those of Murphy to examine historical subjects. Works like Belgian Relief (fig. 3), make reference to Nova Scotia events like the Halifax Explosion of 1917.
Eric Walker, a close friend of Leonard's, makes collage constructions which celebrate local sayings and historical incidents of the region. The work of Leonard and Walker has many technical affinities to Murphy's painting - affinities which have a common genesis in high-art collage and folk art bricolage traditions of construction.
Gerald Ferguson's adaptation of 19th Century theorem painting (stencil) techniques is part of a sophisticated play of art historical references used to specifically locate a painting as 'Nova Scotian', post-modernist' and 'a Gerald Ferguson'. It incorporates none of the assemblage techniques used by Murphy, Leonard, and Walker, but is linked in technique and subject matter to: 1) a body of the artist's stencil work which has been developing since 1968, and 2) to traditional folk stencil techniques that reach back to the 18th Century in Nova Scotia (theorem and decorative painting).
In Ferguson's work the stencil techniques locate the work as 'Nova Scotian' in a general art historical way, while the specific use of a Clearwater fisheries lobster stencil makes reference to contemporary Nova Scotian life. Art historical references (for example, Cezanne still life motifs) connect the work to a current high art tendency to incorporate cut-and-paste art history into paintings.
Murphy is the only artist among this (ill-defined) group who is a photographer:
"When I first started I made single photographs, then photomontage and then collage. I began with the perspective of the photographer. When I started everything was in series - it helped me a lot - putting something together with a beginning, middle and end - making it easier to understand for myself..."
At one extreme, Murphy's work is capable of displaying a high art academicism, as represented in Handouts NYC (cat. 1), a work reminiscent in spirit to the irony of Rauschenberg's Factum I and Factum II. In Rauschenberg's 1957 diptych two almost identical pop/expressionist paintings invite comparisons with each other). Handouts NYC is a photograph of a collage of collected handbills displayed beside the actual handbill collage.
Contrast this work with Murphy seven years later in O Daddy O (cat. 17). A rural 'frankness' (the 'Frank' pun is intended) gives works like O Daddy O - and other works which include self-portraits of the artist - a strong emotional pitch which is absent from Handouts NYC (cat. 1) and indicative of the direction Murphy's fifteen year development as an artist has taken. Murphy's earlier experimentation with the ironic distance of the urban post-modern artist was destined not to last long. Very soon, Murphy was showing an emotional honesty and guilelessness in his work, an honesty which permits almost no appropriation of imagery, and almost no violation of the integrity of the photographic print as it gets collaged on canvas.
Murphy's respect for a separation of media within one work often creates a sense of disjuncture in the painting, as if the paint in a work 'frames' the photographs or, alternately, as if the photographs intrude on a painted ground.
They start with photographs and build out of some sort of response to the photographs - some of the works start with an idea, for example, a depressed state of mind [as in the Suicide (cat. 7 and 8) works, a set of self-portraits]. They start out with the photos and these photos move into paint - the paint somehow has to correlate. I'd like to use some other medium than painting - painting doesn't mean anything. It's not the painting that's important but the colour. It's nice to have something to put your hands on. There are other materials too: wire gates, plaster, mirrors, cloth, plastic, aluminum, staples, glass, concrete, carpenters' squares... What I try to do is to make a complete work which unites the photo with the work, which makes the essence of both come together as one...Charlie Murphy's painting is made with an emotional honesty that is rare among contemporary artists. As viewers from the city, we may too quickly identify, 'emotional honesty' as a 'rural' value seen to be in opposition to the ironic distancing and layering - the coolness - which characterizes contemporary 'city' art. Nevertheless, as ironic post-modernist strategies begin to lose their interest for artists, we are more and more likely to look to people like Murphy for ways of reintroducing into our work a sense of daily reality. Like Murphy, the 'Teacher', we may want to begin our own self-education by transcribing into art a personal ideological record of exactly what we think, how we feel and where we live.
Delpire, Robert, et al, Robert Frank, The Aperture History of Photography Series, New York: Aperture Inc., 1976
Frank, Robert, The Lines of My Hand, New York: Lustrum Press, 1972
Frank, Robert, Robert Frank, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985
Gibson Garvey, Sue, "The Self-Evident Art of Charlie Murphy." Charlottetown: Arts Atlantic, Winter 1989, 44-47
Laurette, Patrick Condon, My Mother was an American, Charles Murphy:Collages/Photos,Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1982
Murphy, Charlie, My Mother was an American/14 Days in Calgary, You Bet, Calgary: The Photographer's Gallery, 1983
Rauschenberg, Robert, Robert Rauschenberg, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1977 (see p. 93 for a reproduction of Factum I & II)
Riordon, Bernard et al, Folk Art of Nova Scotia, Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1976
Riordon, Bernard, Nova Scotia Folk Art, Canada's Cultural Heritage, Halifax: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1989
Smollett, Tobias, Humphrey Clinker, New York: New American Library Inc., 1960 (1771)
Townsend-Gault, Charlotte, "Charlie Murphy," Vancouver: Vanguard, Dec./Jan. 1984-85, 36-37
Tucker, Anne Wilkes, Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia, Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1986