Contemporary landscape: Reinvigorated and reinvented
May 14, 2024 1:34 pm

Contributed by Patrick Neal / In New York City galleries, portraits, still lifes, interiors, and landscapes are everywhere, reinvigorated for the twenty-first century. With landscape painting in particular, innovation often arises through a seamless compounding of sources, where past and present, universal and specific, coexist. Three exemplary solo shows drive home the point. With varying degrees of naturalism and mediation, all three artists favor an authentic response to nature, and the titles of each exhibition suggest a phenomenological grounding.

In “Paintings for the Bird Above My Head” at Stellarhighway, Henry Murphy is in dialogue with early American modernists, particularly members of the Ashcan and Stieglitz circles. His small oil paintings with earth-tone palettes minutely depict subjects seen from across the street, country or globe, executed with an unfussy bluntness that sometimes exposes raw canvas. The compositions involve animated stick-like strokes that resemble swaying shrubs, billowing clouds, or metal gates. Outside the Louvre, with an innocent touristy vibe, captures a barge floating down the Seine, while the nearby Shoreline Sketch dissolves into skittering, abstract bands that bring to mind John Marin’s Casco Bay from 1914. Night Window and Rainstorm/Puddle are nocturnes with bleary reflections that become lyrical passages not unlike Richard Walker’s dark domestic interiors. In Night Window, downward, diagonal drags of the brush limn a deep green canopy of tree branches merging with street and cars below, enlivened by flickers of electric lights.

Murphy sometimes underlines the provisional or transient quality of his compositions in the paintings’ titles with words like “study” and “sketch,” and by perspectives that seem modest. Bluff presents a thorny, mustard terrain, the materiality of mineral paint and wood support fusing with organic motifs of crags, rocks, and sand. Works like Across the Ravine and Atlantic Coast through Pines offer a secluded funnel-like view through thickets to reveal a man, dog, or boat. His paint handling captures the atmosphere of different sea and forest locales with bohemian outsider charm recalling Armando Reverón’s ethereal works of the Caribbean coast.

If Henry Murphy summons a sort of everyday magic, Eileen Murphy (no relation) transports us to another realm entirely. Entirely different painting styles drive the expressive content of their respective works. Eileen Murphy’s “Speak to Me from Everywhere” at Thomas VanDyke Gallery hints at multifarious sources. With oil on panel, she knits vistas drawn from life, art history, and poetry into surreal dreamscapes. Drawing on Dutch Golden Age painting as well as the Hudson River and Barbizon schools, she arrives at her own unique pastorals; think Julie Heffernan meets Joan Nelson.

Eileen Murphy’s landscapes employ a kind of hyperrealism that showcases the techniques and conventions of painting itself. The tentacles of a tree’s root system break into cascading ribbons, clusters of leaves and blossoms blaze into starlit constellations, and shorelines wind and flow into silken scrolls. In many works, hazy moons orbit over high-key skylines in different climates. The roiling, storybook composition of In Repose has a nude woman languishing in the woods beside a stream full of koi. Within the frame of the small panel, Murphy presents a fascinating array of visual phenomena from foreground to background. Billowing smoke, a checkered blanket, writhing trees, and a flock of birds coalesce in a topsy-turvy tableau that suggests Mark Greenwold’s domestic interiors.

Some of Eileen Murphy’s paintings have titles like Swoon, Curl, Whisper, and Wizened – traits personified in the spirited trees and misty skies she depicts. Other titles reference literature and music, and the four tiny paintings of the earth seen from outer space share the wonderment of Donato Creti’s series of astronomical observations and, more recently and obliquely, Robert Bordo’s globe paintings. Between the Veils is a stunning forest scene in deep greens and bluish greys entwining the facture of painting and the geometries of nature. Here, Murphy paints flora with fractal-like iterations that form grass, brush, shrubs, and rhythmic sprigs and branches. Wending from forest to sea, the limited, tonal palette jibes with the deftly balanced bodies of land and water that are pictured.

While Eileen Murphy conjures the Medieval and Romantic periods of art history, Emma Tapley zones in on the waters and woods of contemporary parks and recreation in “After Life / Amongst the Trees,” on view at DFN Projects. She too works in oil on panel, and her lean, glistening surfaces lend her subjects a crisp realism. She captures the abstraction in reflections in ponds and lakes, and in the interstices between rows of trees. Working from life and photographs, she favors a close-up view of surface water that invertedly mirrors trees, buildings, and people. In the top portion of two paintings of Madison Square Park are glimpses of the horizon where solid ground meets reflecting pool. Illusions mingle with natural phenomena such as aquatic plants, tossed leaves, ripples, shadows, and light to create colorful webs of perception.

Tapley’s conceptual approach is comparable to that of Jennifer Bartlett’s Pool of 1983, which liberates the mechanics of photography to unleash a barrage of painterly effects, and attention oscillates between representation and the creative process itself. Employing a grid system, Tapley refines her subjects through successive layers. Flat information from a photographic source becomes a springboard for pure painterly invention. Her paintings of water have a close-up hovering orientation, while those of trees are perceived from a straight distance. The intervals among vertical trees in Amongst The Trees Sag Harbor moderate the unruly forest floor carpeted in dead leaves. Set off by a slate-blue sky, the sea-green lichens on the tree trunks subtly contrast with the umbers and ochers of the fallen leaves across an expanse of arresting surface activity.

Online connectivity and image saturation have ensured easy and abundant access to a wide range of art. Henry Murphy, Eileen Murphy, and Emma Tapley have staked claims on distinct pockets of art history that are clearly enriching their own painting. Their work attests that art fuels art in an ongoing cycle of painterly reinvention.

“Henry Murphy: Paintings for the Bird Above My Head,” Stellarhighway, 1050 Park Place, Brooklyn, NY. Through May 26, 2024.

“Eileen Murphy: Speak to Me from Everywhere,” Thomas VanDyke Gallery, 434 39th Street, Brooklyn, NY. Through May 22, 2024.

“Emma Tapley: After Life / Amongst the Trees,” DFN Projects, 16 East 79th Street, New York, NY. Through May 31, 2024.

Contemporary landscape: Reinvigorated and reinvented