The Moon Comes Up, The Moon Goes Down
If we had only learned to speak
The tongue of dogs instead of Greek,
We should be better schooled to fight
The spells and portents of the night.
(From “Oracle of the Dog’ by Vincent Starrett)
The animal figures in Joanna Murphy’s paintings exist beyond domestication, in landscapes devoid of human life. They exude autonomy, dictating their agency in the world through opposing states of vitality and power, frailty and vulnerability. They are, in part, modeled on Ibizan hounds - notable for their elegant athleticism and large, upright ears - that captivated Murphy on a past trip to the Balearic Islands. Despite their kinship to living animals, these representations are mythical creatures, conceived mostly from dreams and the experience of animal encounters in the wild places around Murphy’s home in Upstate NY. She describes the electric charge of:
“catching a private moment with an animal - where they see you but they don’t see you - there is a unison that happens, and it’s not on a physical plane”.
These works turn away from the historical representation of dogs as landowner’s companions, accessories or trophies, and instead, give the animal center stage in landscapes through which they can roam freely, unencumbered by traditional bonds of servitude and obedience. Murphy’s dogs hold the same quality in the painted space as a human subject; their presence is conjured from her desire to “see them in their own dramatic lives”, to understand their nature and reveal what she describes as their “elemental force”.
Painted in expressionistic brush strokes with areas of topological detail, Murphy’s landscapes unfold in an exuberant - and a sometimes uncanny - pallet of dusky pinks, pale lavender and bright turquoise. This “alternate realm of color” mirrors the peculiarity and mysticism of her lived experience with nature. For her, the animal figures “function as portals from interior to exterior worlds”. Several of the works partially retain the quality of sketches, where the figures are rendered in pencil, suggesting this transition between one state and the other. In Just Before Dark, the use of color is intrinsic to conveying meaning:
“She is being enveloped by the landscape, which is why her face is turning blue, to mirror the surrounding land. There’s something reckless about that turquoise - so unsettling. It has snowed and there is a crispness in the mountains - she is witnessing this change.”
This merging of dog into landscape demonstrates the state of being in the world, but not of the world, and also implies the synergy between an animal and its natural habitat.
In Cottonwood Trees, the white-parent dog, lying beside two pups, gazes out with calm assuredness. Murphy describes this painting as being “dream-like, as if they have emerged from a fog”. There is no horizon line, they are released from linear gravity; she wants them to envelope the surface where the viewer “could float in the canvas and be with them”. She cites the historical significance of pure white dogs to a number of Indigenous American tribes, to whom they were considered sacred and in possession of spiritual powers.
While the dogs take center stage in most of the paintings, Padding Through Red Sumac and The Green Hours After Midnight give prominence to broad swathes of landscape. In Sumac we see the animals in a state of private engagement with the land, unaware they are being observed. The stone wall in this painting - a common sight in Murphy’s part of the world - reminds us of human hands, but this breaching shows they are free to pass through man-made constraints. In the grand Romanticism of Green Hours, two dogs in silhouette against snow-capped mountains stand alert on a rocky ridge. Despite their scale, these figures hold our attention and are not subsumed by the landscape, rather they inhabit it with potent agency. The sublime is at play here, prompting us to wonder how animals perceive and experience the world.
Narratives that thread through the work are intermingled with Murphy’s own life, and are imbued with autobiography. She has recently made a permanent move from New York City’s East Village to a new home in the Catskill Mountains. Two of the paintings show dogs in urban environments and represent her experience of departure . “The city paintings are about leaving, giving up the geometric landscape where I had always felt held”. In Now to Home, Without Looking Back, the animals have the quality of porcelain figurines, “as if they are artifacts from my previous life”. They also remind her of guardian dogs, “protecting me as I move forward”.
Throughout this series, Murphy invites us to consider her subjects as metaphysical beings, and not only as portal, but also as mirror. “I want people to see these paintings and see a reflection of themselves, to be prompted to open up and consider other possibilities of being”. She also describes the dogs as representing the anguish of contemporary life. Concerns around the environment play a part in her approach to the work:
“I have recurring anxiety dreams about what we’ve done to the earth. I am trying to work out feelings of powerlessness in the face of this. We have not fully understood the life of wild animals, they have been largely excluded for our consciousness”.
In response, she is attempting to get to the essence of life in the natural world. Relocating to the mountains has provided a new space to consider these questions:
“I’ve discovered an amazing sensibility here about who I am. All the pieces have come together. I feel more self-assured about the work than ever before. I’m realizing the language of how I want to portray my relationship to the earth, to the land up here - and it’s through these animals. I see they are a force, and they have the power to survive. I think I’ve shown that essence.”
The work then, is as much about an exploration of selfhood, the qualities of vulnerability and stoicism, as it is about the natural environment. For her, the paintings “hover on the periphery of the symbolic”; the wildlife in the landscape is both real and imaged. Her compositions are to remain intentionally mysterious and open to interpretation. Murphy has invited us into a magical realm that is, at different turns, rapturous, tender, anguished and beguiling. These paintings offer the rarest of things - a new view of the world. She is presenting a fork in the road, showing us another way of being. We can make of it what we will.