Catherine Murphy, Bathroom Sink, 1994, Oil on canvas, 51 ½ x 44 inches, Image courtesy of Peter Freeman
I used to just say all representational painting is narrative. But I think it is all narrative, and I think form can be subject. –Catherine Murphy
For 70 years my life has been mostly bad jobs, like most everybody else, and occasionally drawing and painting, except now, being retired and having built my house to paint in, I am free. I have found that bad jobs can produce very good pictures. Don’t know what good jobs produce. — David Byrd
I still remember the first time I saw Catherine Murphy give a talk about her work, and how she described the process of painting Bathroom Sink (1994). The painting’s seemingly straightforward subject matter—curls of cut hair floating on water in a sink’s basin—belied a more complex labor of construction. During the months she worked on the painting in her bathroom, the sink repeatedly drained. To fix this problem, she had the drain sealed. Then the hair decayed and sunk so she found a synthetic wig material that worked better. What at first glance seemed like an image of a casual moment stretched and expanded during her discussion of her process. Time in the making is visible in her paintings. Her process is sculptural, from constructing her motif—often times working like a theatrical set builder—to the finely wrought attention she brings to the compression of three dimensions into two. The sculptural way she works affects the time in her paintings, which in turn shapes how the narratives in her work function.
About a dozen years after seeing Murphy’s lecture, I walked into a two-person show at Zieher, Smith, and Horton Gallery in Chelsea. One of the artists, David Byrd, was new to me. Formally, his paintings were the opposite of Murphy’s. Fleeting in appearance, Byrd used the minimum paint needed to evoke his images. Informed by European modernists and American painters like George Tooker, his works wore their abstract skeletons close to the skin. Many of the subjects of these paintings were the patients at the Montrose VA Hospital where Byrd worked as an orderly for 30 years. In spite of being productive during this period and prolific after his retirement in 1988, he had his first solo show in 2013 when he was 87. Not long after this show opened, Byrd died of lung cancer. His work remains little known. When I saw the exhibition in 2015, I was struck by the sensitivity with which he painted his subjects but also how he managed to convey their world narratively with a highly essentialized language. Existing in a tenuous balance between solidity and loss, his paintings seemed as developed as they were economical. While both Murphy and Byrd use form as a means to make narrative works, they also create paintings that exist on a spectrum between solidity and erasure.
Catherine Murphy, Clasped, Oil on canvas, 46 x 50 inches, 2013
When I saw Catherine Murphy’s painting, Clasped (2013), at her recent show at Peter Freeman Gallery, I was struck by how both familiar and removed I am from its subject—a woman, likely in late middle age or elderly, sits with gloved hands clasping a purse on her lap. Her hands sit at my eye level, which places me on the floor or at the point of view of a child, and I feel close enough to touch the gloves the woman wears. When I look at the painting, I am both myself and not myself. I inhabit a fictional viewpoint. In looking, I become lost in every fold of the gloves and the sheen of her leather purse. Murphy’s painting operates at such a slow pace that I can’t imagine beyond this moment, that the figure might stand up from where she’s sitting and make her way to her destination. This stillness creates distance as the image transforms from an everyday scene into an icon. The pictorial gravity shifts.
When Murphy says that form is a subject, she also seems to mean that form is narrative. The associations and suggestions that allow her work to tell a story occur through her exacting control of her work’s visual language. She has an extraordinary eye for shape and how to situate those shapes within a rectangle in a manner that suggests someone seeing that moment. This precision allows the picture to build outwards from a single instant to a broader spectrum of time. I’m at an oblique angle in the drawing Rose’s Coloring Book (2011), coming upon the child’s work when she is off playing a room away. I imagine the sounds filtered through the wall. From above, I don’t get the impression that I am the child who scribbled and colored with crayons, both in and out of the lines. My attention moves more slowly as the pace of the child’s fast gestures are stilled and solidified by Murphy’s hand. The gutter between pages looks solid and polished as if it could be carved from marble. By the time my eye has gotten to this sculptural pause, I begin to feel that I’ve moved forward in time, that I’ve rediscovered the coloring book in the back of a closet during a spring cleaning and Rose is already learning to drive. Time has passed and the lived-in-the-world quality of the coloring book grows. The act of looking at Murphy’s drawing is a process. My experience contains many speeds of seeing. Time in this process constructs narrative in an otherwise still work, but it doesn’t unfold evenly.
Catherine Murphy, Rose’s Coloring Book, 2011, Graphite on paper, 27 x 34 inches
Time moves more inwardly in Clasped. As I imagine it, the woman sits across from me on the bus. She rides to mass or a funeral. She is my grandmother, Hazel, who gave up her job as a school teacher in Kansas (she rode a pony to work) to start a family. I remember finding those gloves in a trunk where my mother kept some of Hazel’s things. As a boy they were big on my hands, an essential part of my costume when I played with toy swords, until I outgrew the gloves and switched to video games.
Although Clasped is a dark painting, on close inspection it is full of subtle colors that use temperature to build the sculptural quality of the hands along with Murphy’s modeling. The handle on the woman’s handbag forms a neat arc on the central vertical axis of the painting. The underside of the woman’s hands forms a softer arc directly above. When Murphy hangs these shapes on the centerline of her canvas, she stabilizes, crystallizes, and monumentalizes her composition. This structure tells me about a woman with a straight back. In his excellent monograph on Murphy’s work, John Yau posited that she might be a cleaning woman made anonymous as much by the painting’s framing as by her costume. (140) Her coat and gloves are like armor whose defense is invisibility. Murphy’s use of detail is specific and highly selective.
Murphy’s paintings remind me of moments in the stories of Lucia Berlin, in which a singular piece of exposition causes a complete world to revolve around it. In her title piece from her selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, Berlin uses these moments as narrative anchors. She writes: “Slow bus to Jack London Square. Maids and old ladies. I sat next to an old blind woman who was reading Braille, her finger gliding across the page, slow and quiet, line after line. It was soothing to watch, reading over her shoulder. The woman got off at Twenty-ninth, where all the letters have fallen from the sign NATIONAL PRODUCTS BY THE BLIND except for BLIND.” (26) With the publication of her selected stories in 2015, Berlin’s work has seen a resurgence. Many of her stories are about working. Murphy’s labor and visible efforts align with a working class sensibility. Lucia Berlin begins her story “Mourning”: “I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that’s one reason I don’t mind working as a cleaning woman. It’s just like reading a book.” (236) Murphy’s paintings read this way too, focused on the small details of the everyday and imagining how they can unpack a world, unfolding at a slow, architectural speed.
David Byrd, Great American, 1999, Oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches, Courtesy of David Byrd Estate
Like Berlin, David Byrd spent much of his life doing blue collar jobs. Also like Berlin, he was an acute observer who seemed to spend his work day taking careful note of the details that make a narrative specific. Turning these moments into a narrative work requires a process of distillation that translates lived experience into fiction. Many of Byrd’s paintings operate like Berlin’s houses and, like good fiction, they retain only the specific details needed to tell the story. Often this requires Byrd to clear out the unwanted information in his rooms and environments. While Murphy’s narrative expands from minute detail, meaning in Byrd’s work often emerges from selective erasure. In his painting of the parking lot at a grocery store, Great American (1999), all of the cars are removed. The store looks abandoned. The figures that walk away from the building do so as if for the last time. Accrued from dozens of delicate brush strokes, Byrd’s figures shift like windblown rags. The colors he uses erase the image with light, at once as beautiful as it is indifferent—a bleaching sun that irradiates the color, eroding its substance and causing it to fade. The resulting image is charged with light. His colors remind me of those of the objects—plastic shards, synthetic rope, a pipe stem—that would wash up on the shore when I was living on Cape Cod. Typically fragmentary, these bits were salt burned and sand sculpted into new things that took on an archeological fascination for me. Byrd’s figures often have a similar character. They are something left over from a life.
Unlike Murphy’s fictional constructions, many of Byrd’s images are drawn from memory. In Toilet Scene (1973), Byrd combines the specificity of context with the empathetic views of the patients at the VA Hospital. The brick bathroom, with its grid of window panes, repeated sinks, and stalls without doors, holds its three occupants in stasis. The man in front of the window has a hint of the distortion Byrd uses in his other works, but the surrounding naples yellow and the framework of the windows contains him, keeps him frozen upright. He is pinched at the elbows and waist. Only his hands appear to flutter. The startling figure in the lower right corner has progressed further, becoming a statue of a man, wedged into the corner of the frame with his soundless expression carved in the shape of a scream. The mirrors running along the left disrupt the painting’s one point perspective, and allow the gridded lines of the bricks and window frame to shift and fragment. The third figure becomes animate only within the mirrors. Byrd uses them as an aperture into the inner life of his character by showing what the patient perceives. When he looks in the mirror, the man in the mauve shirt sees his own face laughing back, as though he is two people or one man at odds with himself.
David Byrd, Toilet Scene, 1973, Oil on canvas, 40 x 44 inches, Private collection
While Murphy’s narratives seem specific to each painting, both Byrd and Berlin’s discrete works sit together like a continuous narrative. Lucia Berlin’s selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, were written over more than 20 years, yet read like a novel. Drawing from life experiences as a cleaning woman, a teacher, a mother, and an alcoholic, each story threads to the next, building up to a life. David Byrd’s paintings have a similar, remarkable continuity. Works he made in 1973 exist easily next to those he painted in 2013, the year he died. This consistency makes it easy to read his body of work like Berlin’s selected stories, with images and experiences drawn from a single perspective. Byrd is the unseen narrator that moves between the different moments in his works: the hospital where he worked, the bridge on his commute, or the grocery store where he shopped for dinner.
In Byrd’s painting, Outer World (n.d.), a spectral figure emerges from a network of marks, mossy and moldy, that accrue around a tiny window which casts clean, cold light onto the figure’s face and the room’s ceiling. All that remains of the architecture of the hospital is this one window. The other evidence of the man’s external life and context have been erased. In Berlin’s story “Mourning,” the narrator cleans out the houses of the recently deceased. “[T]he sad part is how little time it takes. Think about it. If you should die…I could get rid of all your belongings in two hours max.” (236) If the houses she describes are like a book, then the cleaning woman erases as she reads. The marks that remain in Byrd’s painting, shimmering with expressive nervous energy, show the patient’s inner life. The restless figure is part of the architecture having made some lasting impression or transference. Or perhaps it was only that he was seen by Byrd, and stayed on the artist’s mind until he could be painted.
David Byrd, Outer World, N.d. Oil on canvas. 20 x 26 inches, Courtesy of David Byrd Estate
Murphy and Byrd’s paintings hold their narratives frozen in time, though the scale of time operates entirely differently. In Clasped, a passing moment becomes sculptural and time slows to a trickle. I have as long as I need to inspect every wrinkle and fold in the woman’s gloves. Perhaps this is why I am reminded of being a child when I see this painting—time feels different when you’re young. I remember being bored out of my mind at Sunday mass and entertaining myself by looking at the back of my father’s hand resting on the pew in front of us. I was small enough that his hands were right at my eye level (too small to kneel and still see over the pew). I traced each vein first with my eyes and then with my fingertip. Through exquisite attention to detail, Murphy’s works resist the storyteller’s desire to get to the next frame and exist instead as self-contained narratives. Her timelines coil up into a mass and accrue like sediment. Although she has very clear preoccupations, each of her works seems like a new narrative beginning. This is partly because Murphy’s way of dealing with time appears very slowly. That sediment has to turn to stone before it can be carved into a sculpture.
In Byrd’s paintings like Great American, I can imagine the characters living their lives, stopping by the grocery store on their way home from work, but for this moment, the figures in the parking lot shimmer in place. Byrd’s relationship to stillness is different than Murphy’s because of the role memory and erasure play in his paintings. The patients in the VA Hospital experienced all sorts of loss: war wounds, mental illness, and other trauma. Bryd’s erasure could be seen as a kind of forgetting necessary to survive. Great American seems like a film caught on a single frame.
When I was young, one of my many odd jobs was as a movie projectionist. There were many possible mistakes I could make, scratching the film or projecting it out of frame, but the worst was to thread it so poorly that it would jam in front of the bulb. If the film caught, it burned. Byrd’s paintings seem to burn as well, with a light that cannot be extinguished.
Matt Bollinger, Independence I & II, 2016, Flashe and acrylic on unstretched canvas, 96″ x 144″ (overall); 96″ x 72″(each)
Matt Bollinger (born in Kansas City, MO) is a narrative artist working in painting, drawing, animation, and sculpture. He lives in New York state and is represented by Zürcher Gallery. www.mattbollinger.com
1. Samet, Jennifer, “Beer with a Painter: Catherine Murphy”,
2. Byrd, David, “Statement”, October 2012, http://www.davidbyrdestate.com/?page_id=19
3. Berlin, Lucia, A Manual for Cleaning Women, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
4. Yau, John, Catherine Murphy, Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc. 2016.