By Penelope Smart
The moment at evening
when the pictures set sail from the walls
— excerpt from “Cargo” by W.S. Merwin
Pictures on the wall in Jennifer Murphy’s The Shadow of Sirius stand tall and still. In the gallery, jewel toned birds, moths, dragonflies, frogs and flora of human-scale have migrated from a dream-like state or have been grafted from the pages of a children’s storybook. Except—as in a Grimm’s fairy tale—prettiness tends to couple with death. Murphy’s exquisite creatures came to life within our new countdown: one in which our time-frame for saving the planet can be counted in months (131), not years. As an exhibit that was mounted in the autumn of 2019, a few weeks after Iceland held its first funeral for a glacier and a few months before Australia’s skies turned red from its burning shorelines, Murphy’s silent gathering of animals, insects and flowers—borne from love, anxiety and heartbreak—take on the power of a silent vigil.
Mercifully, these works are not without grace. The Shadow of Sirius calls upon a collection of poetry of the same title by W.S. Merwin (1927 – 2019), an American poet and ecologist who lived on an Hawaiian pineapple plantation, a once-ruined patch of earth that he restored into a palm tree conservatory. Merwin’s devotion to biodiversity and deep ecology was a heart-centered and painstaking exercise. His poetry—sparing lines of stillness, self-possession and dignity—show us how natural rhythms and infinite connections meant (in a very real sense) the world to him. Like Merwin’s words, Murphy’s work speaks to a great measure of conviction and care. Merwin placed trust in nature’s immensity and impartiality; at the end of his poem “Grace Note,” he writes, “almost at the year’s end / a feathered breath a bird / flies in the open window / then vanishes leaving me / believing what I do not see.”
There has been a special observance of birds. The kind with long legs and impossible S-curve necks: herons, egrets, avocets, cranes, and flamingos. Pink shorebirds are always eye catching, and the flamingos in Painted Lady (2019) or Patinated Flamingo (2019), as part of a flock of small collages of paper and shell, flaunt Murphy’s surrealist tendencies. Even her flowers, Poppy, Fading Rose, or Daisy (all 2019) are much more than innocent blooms, more like regal beanstalks, lavish and leggy. Though, it is Murphy’s Long-Necked Avocet, Glossy Ibis, and Great Egret (all 2019) who, on stilt legs, hold court in the main gallery room. Drawn from the richly illustrative vision of nature found in John James Audubon’s Birds of North America—it is as if Murphy, more than the 19th century artist-naturalist, knows the truth of rare shore birds, such as a heron. They are creatures who stake claim to the realm of the imagination. Adapted to be well-hidden at the edge of earth and water and sky, it is hard not to gasp if you see one.
Even though Murphy’s work consistently looks like it was made by a magic spider, her signature collage technique is disarmingly simple: hand-cut images from nature magazines and textbooks are sewn together into exquisite design. The effect is ornamental; insects as finery. As with the time-consuming work of ornamentation—fine lace work, embroidery, even calligraphy and scrollwork—the level of skill and effort required of the maker of work borders on the sacrificial. High-level precision and dedication is nothing new in her work, but these pieces show Murphy as an artist ambitious in her craft and owning new webs of death and life; hope and worry; hours and hours of it. Stand back and Quartz Moth (2019) is an object: a giant gemstone brooch. Get up close and the insect becomes a two-dimensional web of itself, a teeming network of magic-dust wings and tiny swamp things. Her caretaking of paper and compositions of nature is now so indexically-enlightened yet nonsensical, so and inexhaustible it can make you feel dizzy. Nauseated. Hypnotized. Do I look away? Suddenly terror of beauty and grandeur of tragedy comes crashing in.
Murphy treasures the ocean, moon, and tides. In the centre of the room is a spiral made of shells, corals, abalone—every sort of pastel skeleton or glinting husk of the sea—upon a circular plinth. The show’s namesake sculpture is yet another of her impeccable amassments and arrangements of a singular type of thing. In form, Murphy’s is a coil connected to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1971), in content, however, the work floats away (or above) the masculine history of western landart, and towards the mystery of moon cycles or the sentimentality of shellcraft. Gazing at The Shadow of Sirius (2019), there is, above all, a sense of the infinite. There are no cardinal directions and time catches everything in its whorl.
As if on a ten-year cycle, the imagery in this exhibit circles back to the large gemstone skulls, birds and spiral designs that filled Clint Roenisch’s Queen Street gallery in Twenty Pearls (2011). Since then, Murphy’s practice has both evolved and devolved into wondrous scatterings of mostly small, generative, anthropological-tinged works on gallery walls. While The Shadow of Sirius remains an open-ended sequence, this new body of work has emerged as her most biologically distinctive in years. Murphy’s Blue Damselfly (2019) or Golden Moth (2019) have not fluttered in on a whim nor do they carry playful traces of human origin. They are bound to an eye-level plane like flies on flypaper; they are history.
One concluding effect upon the viewer is that Murphy has the guts to go big. In similar fashion to floor-to-ceiling collage works of the twenty-first century, the most monumental being American artist Kara Walker’s exhibition Narratives of Negress (2003), what Murphy pins up is storytelling on a grand scale—one in which hierarchies of big and small, or real and imagined can be considered and questioned. The epic narrative, however, full of empty space, is one in which humans have been absented. More so, it is Murphy’s shore birds, on their eloquent limbs, who have consciousness and poise outside the maelstrom. At the end of the decade and the eerie rose dawn of a new one, Murphy’s birds are an embodiment of grace and pause—moments of stillness before the future takes leave in flight.
The Shadow of Sirius ran from September 5 – October 12, 2019 at Clint Roenisch Gallery in Toronto, ON.
Feature Image: Quartz Moth, 2019 by Jennifer Murphy. Photo courtesy of Clint Roenisch Gallery.