For Joanna Murphy, wild swimming in the farm ponds of Upstate New York is both ritual and reverie. Her new series of paintings, made during months of global uncertainty, explore the sensations of solace and freedom that can arise from an immersion in the natural world. They are, she says, the realization of states of existence, innocence, joy and the sublime. In a broader sense, she sees her work in connection to the romanticism of the Hudson River School and to the gestural painting of the New York Abstract Expressionists.
Stretches of water span the entire canvas in some paintings; in others, the surrounding landscape forms a frame that offers the viewer clues as to the weather, the season or the time of day. The pond, says Murphy, is an enchanted place; she perceives other-worldly creatures in the depths. “I sometimes open my eyes underwater but can barely see anything except for the light coming down just below the surface. That’s why the imagination is so vivid in my paintings; you can invent whatever you think is there, and I think there is so much there”.
Murphy’s work balances elements of both realism and dreamlike abstraction. She has chosen to paint with oils for this collection, which she believes most accurately describe her experience of the qualities of the water. Her figures - which originated as a series of pencil drawings - move through it with vigor and intentionality. In some of the paintings there is a second, smaller figure, intended to mirror or echo the first, and are not meant to be seen as a separate entity.
The swimmers appear, in part, as aquatic animals at one with their environment, in part, human, with a vulnerability that comes from opening up to experience or entering a foreign place. For the artist, this duality is at the heart of each painting. She talks about “protecting” her swimmers, forming reeds or lily pads around them, as if to offer a cloak of invisibility. In viewing the paintings, we are being offered a privileged glimpse of the figure that may not be visible were we to be standing at the water’s edge.