Painter Tim Murphy is too little-known in Tucson.
One of the town's best colorists, he's experimented with all manner of subjects, delicately painting images as varied as human figures, stacks of cubes and, in one memorable small work, abstracted swimmers elbowing their way through a lake. But these subjects are nearly always simplified, reduced to mere suggestions. They're mostly an excuse for a Murphyan excursion into barely there layerings of color, of pale yellow or glistening sage.
In his new work at Davis Dominguez Gallery, part of a three-person show—shared with sculptor Judith Stewart and the late painter Bruce McGrew—Murphy has followed this journey to its logical conclusion: He's dispensed with subject matter altogether and concentrated entirely on shape and color—or so it seems.
At first glance, the new paintings are pure abstractions, assemblages of odd shapes that look like oversized puzzle pieces. The canvases—six large and three small—are given over to these sharp-edged forms, all of them rigidly separated from one another and flatly painted in a single color.
"Composition #4" is one of the big ones, an oil on canvas that stretches maybe 6 feet high and 5 feet wide. It's carefully constructed of two dozen or so of these puzzle pieces intricately fitted together.
The colors are well thought out, too: pale peaches and blues, and a lovely sage on top, with deeper browns, burnt sienna and grays on the bottom. Those colors are a clue: The longer you look at this painting, the more it starts coalescing into a landscape in your mind's eye.
Those light tones suggest a dreamy sky; the deep hues suggest the earth below. And if you keep on gazing, the small fields of color, seemingly so separate, join together as illusionistic 3-D shapes, turning into unruly parallelograms and rebellious rectangles angling off the canvas.
Once you catch on, most of the paintings morph into cubist visions of a fractured landscape—or cityscape. In the small work "Any Way 3," an oil on panel about 24 inches wide and 28 inches high, the sharp shapes suggest a crowded architecture. They open onto a patch of pale sky blue and sea green, a tiny intrusion of the natural world into an urban space.
Murphy remains a sensuous colorist within the rigid framework of these intellectualized works. Those fields of color may be solid and flat, but they're lovely and harmonious. Still, I miss his looser, brushier works. Luckily, one work in this careful series rebels against Murphy's new law.
"Composition #7," a large oil on canvas, has a troop of squares that seem to have escaped from the patterns that rule the other paintings. The squares are flying in a half-circle at the center like an unmoored deck of cards. And unlike the shapes in the other paintings, they're not carefully painted in. Instead, their colors are improvised and lively, energetic and still unfinished.
And the background? It's classic Murphy, wonderfully layered, with the white gesso bleeding through stained greens and pinks, a delicious work still—and forever—in progress.
The sense of work unfinished also animates Stewart's handsome sculptures. As far as I know, Stewart always sticks to the female form, and here, she's got eight sculpted women, or parts thereof, neatly lined up on pedestals in two rows. But there's nothing neat about these energetic works.
They suggest classical nudes, but their bodies are roughly constructed, with overlapping layers of bronze or clay, and cracks snaking through the irregular surfaces. Instead of sticking to the lush patinas of bronze or the smooth white of plaster, Stewart mixes her materials and her colors, patching a body together with black bronze and terra cotta. The figures are missing an arm here, a foot there.
"Vanitas" tackles a traditional subject—a woman peering into a looking glass, with intimations of fading beauty and mortality. It's made of bronze, but the torso is the terra cotta color of clay, and the arms are black.
Likewise, the full-length "Gowned Figure" mimics a classical work. A lovely bowed head tops a lithe body, shown to advantage by a clinging clay dress. But the fired clay is as rough as a maquette. One arm is chopped off at the shoulder, the other just above the elbow. At one and the same time, "Gowned Figure" looks like an archaeological find, a remnant of a disappeared civilization, and an ambiguous post-modern work that prizes process over completion.
As serious as all that sounds, Stewart's works are a pure joy. Her solid sculptures feel uncannily like 3-D sketches, improvisational and tactile, with her fingerprints permanently recorded in the yielding clay.
Both Stewart and Murphy had connections to McGrew. Murphy studied painting with McGrew, who taught art at the UA for 30 years. And a few years before McGrew died in 1999, Stewart moved into Rancho Linda Vista, the art colony that McGrew co-founded. The three also have stylistic links. If Stewart and Murphy prize the feel of the unfinished, McGrew was a master of watercolor, a slippery art form that relies on freshness and speed, and is all the better the less it is worked.
The gallery's small alcove is filled with McGrew watercolors, deft studies of mountains and lakes in Scotland, where he loved to travel, and the land and skies of the American West. In a marvelous untitled view of the Catalinas, the saguaros cascading down the slopes are as simplified as it's possible for a saguaro to be—in quick vertical stokes of transparent lime-green.
The best of the large-scale oils on exhibit, "Lady of the Mountain Lake," is vintage McGrew, combining mythological overtones with a fantasy landscape and the figure of a woman. A slender figure with a skirt blowing out into the wind, McGrew's lady could be the cousin of Stewart's gowned woman. The lady stands near a pool of shimmering water; towering in the distance is a row of mountains backed up against a fractured sky, another McGrew trademark.
Not all of the works are as splendid. The watercolor "Near Palm Springs" is overworked and fussy; "The Three Graces," a big oil on canvas, is a little muddy, a little hokey. These old pieces hauled out of storage should have stayed there, as McGrew himself likely would have preferred.
It's far better to remember him for his best work. One of the untitled watercolors, for example, is quick, liquid and perfect. As tiny as a man's hand, it conjures up a big sky in yellow and blue, with a tumble of purple rocks across the horizon, and a deep gray pool down under.