todd murphy, an ongoing voyage
i first experienced todd murphy’s work 20 years ago. i can still remember entering the exhibition in the long soho gallery on greene street where is work was showing. instead of the expected display of individual pieces, this show was an immersive environment in todd’s world. skinny and spirited salt-encrusted sculptures populated the dark space. there must have been eight or ten figures on pedestals. stylistically hybrid, they belonged to no one tradition but to their own tribe. they were bewitching. at the far end of the room, a gigantic picture of a lady singer dressed only in a green skirt emerged from the darkness, her bare back aglow. the image was backlit and painted on plexi, projecting itself like a film. it was impressive. the woman was a rock and roll goddess in the midst of a haunting environment. the whole thing was surreal.
since then, i make my way to todd murphy’s brooklyn studio regularly. i usually go with my two large dogs. they gallop down the corridors and greet todd effusively. they love him. in their mind, he is one of them – a like-minded collector of sticks and bones with a fondness for woods and wildlife. past the door, the dogs go on, systematically scanning the area and its contents. they are perfectly at home in his wondrous space at the navy yard, scrutinizing his collections before laying down in front of the works.
i follow. each time i go is a discovery. everything has changed. todd thinks his 1400-square foot, high-ceilinged studio is tiny. he is accustomed to having at least twice as much room in atlanta, where he lived before moving to new york. the atlanta spaces were large enough to contain airplanes, allowing his experiments with titanic installations and constructions to find their full potential. his brooklyn studio is just large enough to express a fraction of his world.
todd’s navy yard studio has a certain plasticity, always changing. usually when you go to visit an artist, you find that their pieces have changed, but that their workspace is essentially the same. at todd’s, this is not the case. just as a stage hosts different elaborate sets for each play performed upon it, yodd drastically adapts his studio to produce different works. things are permuted, light re-hanged, and partitions rearranged. todd is as much a maker of things as he is a director. a new setting is an integral part of the tale. each visit, a new world has been arranged. new works, new light and a new choreography awaits. the studio is in itself an art installation.
a multimedia storyteller and world traveler
todd murphy is a storyteller at heart. his body of work constitutes an epic tale. characters evolve, incarnating themselves in different formats and media. the work grows organically, expanding its horizons, following long periods of preparation. the territory of his reach develops in a non-linear way. the artist pushes its expanse in search of meaning. season after season, the work grows, defining more precisely its narrative territory. todd murphy continues the ancient tradition of myth writers. his writing uses a combination of contemporary methods and some nineteenth-century methodologies. he utilizes whatever will communicate his story. he is a constructor and a painter, a sculptor and a photographer, a filmmaker and a theater designer. the results of todd’s multi-disciplinary endeavors are art pieces that participate in the building of his narrative.
todd murphy is the first to recognize his love of theater, history and storytelling. he also admires the adventurous old-fashioned scientific explorers. murphy’s work is infused with reflections on the lands he has traveled, from the state of georgia all the way to antarctica. the different stages of his creative process could be mapped out on a globe. todd’s explorations are as much personal journeys as they are creative quests. his ideas are frequently born out of the inspirations and materials he finds while traveling. he brings back specimens of all sorts, natural and manmade, stories of men and animals, impressions of forests and seas.
todd goes on his journey with equipment to capture images, shoot films, and gather samples. i see todd murphy as a sort of creative naturalist, an artist-explorer who researches pieces of our human and natural history. with each production, the artist creates a physical manifestation of his discoveries. his art could be understood as the modern equivalent of an early explorer’s map: land drawn from memory, illusion and reconstitution, a retelling of a recollection.
collecting to create
as a child, todd murphy used to go on what he called a “things search.” the habit stayed with him and became one of his art’s foundations. todd creates collections after collections. he keeps specimens and items of all sorts. he collects to create, small and enormous things, tiny wooden sticks and large boats. his collections are peculiar and specific, their classifications personal, informed by narrative. thematics reflect his interest in alchemy, our relationship with nature and southern history.
these days, two tables in todd’s studio display carefully-gathered items. one is filled with small olive branches burnt by lightning. the other displays oddly-formed hand brushes made of natural fibers. they were put together after the artist’s trip to a monastery in majorca. they are a mix of artistic and natural specimens, not scientific, but poetic.
another hidden drawer opens to reveal small animals’ jaw bones, wooden canes and old tools, all declining variations of a same shape. as with most treasures, the pieces radiate a special aura. they hold the promise of a secret tale. it is difficult to deduct their origin and meaning. they could be rare artifacts or the remnants of a ritualistic event, or something the artist made himself. only todd could tell.
of key frames and narratives
todd’s universe is anchored by images of dresses, boats, horses, birds, and stags. they appear and reappear in his photography, sculptures and paintings, creating a private symbolism. the artist calls these subjects his “key frames:” his points of transition. they stand at the intersection of several directions, connecting the links between different stories. their iconic presence is distinctive and powerful, and stays with the viewer long after she has left their side.
the sea and woods play as much of a recurring role in todd’s work. they are the two environments todd cherishes. he is not attached to a specific ocean or forest, but to the realms’ archetypal roles as mythical crossing grounds. in water as well as in deep wilderness, there is a great, intricate abundance of life being practiced differently; perhaps this is what fascinates todd.
once on little st. simons Island, off of the coast of georgia, todd saw a stark white stag amongst the spanish moss. he was mesmerized. the deer’s spirit lingered with the artist long after he had dashed back into the wild. a photograph reinvents the scene in winter: a white stag standing in the midst of an ethereal forest, covered in snow. the work is a montage, a forest of twig, carefully reconstituted by the artist. the encounter is retold as a poetic vision. since, the stag, in white or tan, is an essential figure for the artist. in another one of todd’s pieces, a regal, life-sized stag is represented with three-dimensional branches growing out of the picture. the effect is striking, merging the animal with his forest.
the stag’s quiet masculinity has so far remained unique in todd’s work. murphy’s studio is filled with dress forms, dresses, bell-shaped skirts and women’s bodices made in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. in his work, women stand for humanity. a love of fashion shines through the work. the garments are essential, but dressmaking is not todd’s focus. his collection of dresses is not styled or conceived for the sake of idealization. however exquisite the dresses are, todd’s interest goes beyond aesthetic concerns. he uses their contours as a direct signifier of the human body. they are part of our cultural history, and allow the artist to allude to difficult histories through their folds.
in the back of the studio, tall figures wear skirts made of dried foliage and branches. in their proud and unusual silhouettes, the feminine principle morphs with nature. these sculptures, at women scale, offer an image of resistance, a refusal to renounce their inner wilderness. they seem freer than the form-making skirts hanged nearby. the bell-shaped skirts are well-structured, perfectly balanced. they circle and bind, keeping the body in a tight cage. murphy is keenly aware of the darkness underlining the moving beauty of these pieces. they evoke a history of masters and slaves, of displacement and war. they are more confrontational than it seems.
there are more dresses near the studio’s front door. they are central to todd’s recent multimedia works called murmuration. the series, made of slim dark plexiglass boxes, features life size luminous dresses. the dresses are carved away, their fabric replaced with images. some contain objects, others contain video projections. lit by a classical chiaroscuro, they offer an intimate viewing. sail boats, stretched strings, a night owl in trees, thick foggy woods, a dancing girl: each dress opens onto another world. murphy brings back some of the magic of early cinema. the murmurations are portals on an inner journey, one that reaches back to the familiar settings of forest and sea.
voyage and boats
one of my favorite todd murphy pieces is indigo voyage. i always pause in front of it. about the size of a twin bed, it represents the vast sea in indigo hues. the water is signified by a japanese patchwork textile called boro. a miniature rowboat navigates a boro sea. the piece has always struck me as epic and profoundly wise, a sort of hokusai meets moby dick. the artist has never shown it. its voyage has of yet remained unseen.
todd collects boro cloth. amongst his treasures, there is a simple japanese peasant dress made of the fabric. the artist tells me that in the nineteenth century, indigo used to be cultivated by the japanese as well as by west african slaves in georgia and north carolina. rice and Indigo were the two cultivated goods slaves were originally forced to produce in america, before cotton. this is also what japanese peasants were growing. todd’s japanese dress and other indigo cotton outfits he owns are placed in the studio next to the sculptures with skirts in dried foliage. indigo, like dresses, is one of the artist’s key frames. it is a link between stories of our humanities.
boats appear in wider, larger variations in other works, sometimes with sails, sometimes without. the object is central to todd’s current narrative. boats held the fate of men, helped them survive or lead them to their ultimate fate. fishermen’s boats and the middle passage slave ships were at two opposite ends of survival. todd’s boat collections and installations embody a wide range of meaning. they evoke conquer and colonization, discoveries and survival. they also speak of terrible loss and tragic fate. boats are an old signifier of displacement and adventure. an embarkation with transcendental meaning in the artist’s iconography.
murphy has a composition called ecce homo, ecce astro navis made of a collection of numerous toy boats, wheeled structures and planes. the title speaks for itself: we as humans travel. we explore and migrate. our voyages, near and far, write our histories. history, even fictional, has its own map, its own territory. todd murphy knows this and in the end, this is what his epic work continues to chronicle.
todd has two new vast installations in the making. one comprises three boat shells hanged in space. they look ghostly and grand, like the remnants of an odyssey. the other installation features a gigantic embarkation, pointing up like a rocket ship ready for launch. it links the boat to the myth of the next conquest, the space odyssey we have already started.
the artist is on to his next chapter, reflecting on new journeys. next time i come, the studio space will have dramatically changed.