Jennifer Murphy


Jennifer Murphy: Twenty Pearls, installation view (2010): Images courtesy Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto.Jennifer Murphy: Twenty Pearls, installation view (2010): Images courtesy Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto.

By Romas Astrauskas

Jennifer Murphy
Clint Roenisch Gallery
Sept. 8 - Oct. 16, 2010

Twenty Pearls, Murphy’s first show at this gallery, is a stunningly beautiful display of craftsmanship and earnest, heart-felt expressiveness. The gallery’s front room features several unframed, large-scale collages. Each one is composed of dozens of small figurative cut-outs, which the artist hand-stitches together using delicate lengths of thread to form larger images or compositions (in this case, several skulls and a bird). The small cut-outs that are used to form the larger images derive from the artist’s extensive collection; each and every one cut out by hand from old books and magazines, and filed for later use. (The artist is emphatic that none of them are collected from the Internet.) There is a fair level of consistency in the types of images collected by the artist. Even a quick glance at the work reveals a strong preference for birds, cats, butterflies, skulls, mummies, jewels and other precious stones, spiders and snakes.

Murphy’s compositions appear to radiate and hum, seemingly tapping into the energy and vitality of nature itself. Not all is sweetness and light, however. The collages are tempered with allusions to death and decay, giving the work a balance that is shared with the natural world itself. Life cannot exist without death, and so it is in Murphy’s collages that these two forces embrace and intermingle, closer and more thoroughly meshed than most of us would care to admit.

Jennifer Murphy: Gem Skull (detail, 2010): Collage with thread.Jennifer Murphy: Gem Skull (detail, 2010): Collage with thread.During a conversation with the artist, Murphy spoke of many influences, but the one who resonated most was Li Ho, a Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.). Li Ho was known as the 'Ghost Poet' due in part to his short life (he died at age 26), but also for his status as a shadowy figure on the literary fringes who was not accepted by his contemporaries. His startling images of life under the constant threat of decay have much in common with Murphy’s collage work, and her melding of the beautiful and the macabre appear to be a visual realization of the ancient poet’s words. Even Ho’s working methods seem to be echoed in the way Murphy carries out her own practice. The poet would roam the countryside by day, making random one-sentence observations on the world around him. He would collect these single sentences in his pockets. Upon returning home in the evening, they would be spread out on a table before him and arranged, collage-like, into complete poems.

Murphy’s exhibition is rounded out by a number of other smaller works that explore notions of craft and ritual process. There is a shamanistic quality to Murphy’s "Gods-Eye" sculptures, which are created by the repetitive and labour intensive winding of strands of yarn around a pair of crossed sticks. The image of the circle is repeated in several of the radically simplified abstract collages. They exist as symbols of the sun, the moon and, when seen in a pair, eyes, all of which allude to the basic natural elements and phenomena surrounding us. In the end, there is something undeniably 'magical' about the collection, in that we accept the notion of existence itself as magical, a fathomless mystery that we can observe and reflect upon, but never truly comprehend.

Romas AstrauskasRomas Astrauskas is a Toronto-based artist and writer. His paintings, sculptures and collages have been exhibited widely throughout the city, including shows at Greener Pastures, Clark & Faria, Clint Roenisch and LE Gallery.