When I saw the show New Drawings, Prints, and Books, featuring works by Jason Murphy and Katie Ridley Murphy, at Beep Beep Gallery [through July 26], the first things I noticed were the former’s intense colors and the latter’s use of sticks. Ridley Murphy seems obsessed with branches of all sorts—there are arrangements of sticks, assortments of sticks, sticks of different colors, and even her book (covered with an image of a thin, medium, and large stick) was called Sticks. I recalled Cézanne’s studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire. But even with so many sticks, Ridley Murphy’s subdued etchings are overshadowed, like a competitive sibling, by Murphy’s bold black lines, bright Cel-Vinyl paint, and quirky cartoons of twisted figures in awkward situations. The pairing was almost cacophonous. I admired the delicate precision of Ridley Murphy’s tree limbs and effortless intricacy of Murphy’s cartoons but couldn’t understand why they would be presented next to each other, aside from the fact that the artists are husband and wife.
Murphy’s characters are troubled and trouble-makers. They’re pranksters. In Contorted Man and Book Stack, the character’s head, detached from his body, is resting on a stack of books; there are cobwebs beneath his chair, and he raises a finger to his mouth as if shushing disruptive library visitors. And Juvenitive #1 reads like an absurdist, hallucinogenic slapstick comedy. All but two of Murphy’s works (Plant With Bulb and Dead Cactus) include human figures, and he seems to know that his strength lies in his ability to convey the vulnerability and flawed nature of humans, even through cartoon characters.
The nuances of detail in Ridley Murphy’s work are exquisite. Piedmont Park, an etching of a broken branch, is so beautifully described that it appears fragile. Its subtleties of line and value offer stark contrast to abstract works like Color Study, a monoprint of painterly, branchlike green and brown lines, while Chattahoochee Pink 2 combines observational accuracy with abstraction, a sharp, pink line overlaid using chine-collé across an etching of branches as if it, too, were a branch. Like Cézanne and his mountain, Ridley Murphy’s sticks are not a product of uncontrollable repetition. It’s a meditation on color and perspective, a merging of observation and perception.
Bound Pink depicts a seemingly impossible configuration, a puzzle, or optical illusion. Six pink sticks are tied together at their ends, floating in the middle of the print—and that magical, three-dimensional image is contained in another skewed, barely visible rectangle on the print. This arrangement, like the sticklike objects in her print Boxed, seems to be contained within a world that at once follows and defies the laws of nature. Next to Murphy’s Boy Unsuccessfully Tying His Shoe Comic 2, a whimsical image of a boy entangled in his chair while struggling to tie his shoe, Bound Pink emerges as a functioning cog of an exhibition that overall is more about observation and perception than sticks and bright colors.
When close enough to Murphy’s works to see the delicate and painstakingly rendered lines, they are reduced to a palette of flat colors and contour lines. There is a balance between the two bodies of work—a balance of deliberate and spontaneous, of overt and implicit, of serious and comical, of actual and imagined. The artists’ works unite to form an exhibition that explores how perception alters the interpretation of reality.
Yves Jeffcoat is an Atlanta-based writer.