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Charlotte Townsend-Gault

Charlie Murphy & Susan Mills
Eye Level Gallery, Halifax, October 9 22, 1984

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985.
[ 1,135 words ]

It should be no cause for surprise that there are artists working in the fastnesses of Cape Breton, which is better known for its folk art, tourist scene painters and colonies of cultured summer migrants from New York, who share some of the concerns of artists working in the 'large centres'. In the case of Susan Mills and Charlie Murphy, distant neighbours in Cape Breton, we find an exploration of a relationship between text and image, of personal, narrative techniques and multimedia collage on and off the wall. Although very different artists, what they really have in common is that for this their first public exposure, they are showing work that needs to be read thematically. And the theme is that they are both trying, through a combination of words and images, to represent themselves to themselves in a constructed autobiography, a self-directed rhetoric. It is an art produced in privacy, a more appropriate term than isolation, although there is that too.

Murphy grew up in Cape Breton and has taught in the school system there to support his work. It mostly shows his family and friends in their houses, their environment. It is not a pretty place, and there is no disguising the fact that fake wood walls and lush acrylic carpeting do not disguise the tedium and waste of unemployment and deprivation, while the world outside is a coal mine, or blackened, blighted trees. A whitish scurf drifts around and the sombreness is only relieved by a baleful red. But this is something more than a grim picture of a world whose inhabitants are victims of the recession and the pathetic fallacy.

Murphy combines the two and three dimensional, modelling and flat surfaces, paint and photography, the real and the represented, rough and smooth, the delicacy and depth of a photograph with the surface brutality of its cutting and stapling, in order to question the people around him about themselves. The process is not without humour. Murphy's camera finds a quizzical look on the faces it quizzes: his Uncle Earl sick in hospital, Aunt Wawi at the kitchen table, his brothers watching TV, and, also with a camera, Robert Frank, a Cape Breton neighbour, seen through a window, safely out of it and titled Robert in Another World. A key work is a small piece, entitled Myself Playing Indian. It is about disguise, self-image, self-deception, memory and, importantly, the part played in all this by representation — as produced on the television screen, and in paint. The source of the original 'Indian', the television set, is in the background of a photograph of himself in an approximation of the Indian get-up of his fantasy. A nice irony is that he looks as ordinary as any ordinary Indian looks away from the context of the Cowboy and Indian genre. This photographed 'Indian' poses to its double in paint and plaster — his mirror image, the same but different. Thus, the mutually reinforcing, or oppositional relationships between paint and photography are scrutinized, beyond their surface qualities, for the lies they tell, the myths they represent.

Murphy's approach has something of the bricoleur about it, and the hand of the artist as he tinkers with his materials is very evident. Segments of cut up photographs are reassembled, drawn around with staples or with rough stitching, extended or obliterated with paint, built over with plaster; knubbly fabric has been stuck onto the chair in a painted room, swatches of fabric, standing in for the carpet in a photographed room almost swamp the scene, but then bright orange carpet can be somewhat obtrusive in an interior. There is too something one recognizes as the touch of the folk artist, especially in his realization of the figure in plaster — crude, vivid, in the case of Country Man, painted purple and the eyes bored with nails.

The notion of the sophisticated 'folk' arises again with Susan Mills's work: paintings, diaries and painted diaries. In making public (again for the first time) her need to be private, she aims at simple, straightforward statements. But her story is not straightforward, nor are her responses simple, with the result that there is, about her writings especially, a certain faux-näif quality that makes them both endearing and infuriating.

She began by trying to label everything exactly, trying to say it all with language, but she found that isolation led her back to painting. Now the pattern is that she veers every few years from one to the other, not wanting to lose touch with either. A balance of sorts is achieved with Turning Off the Water, a bag full of small wooden panels that you take out to read. On one side you read in her loopy paint writing about the complex stages by which the water is turned off and the domestic plumbing system drained. On the other side you 'read' a little close-up painting of the faucet, bend or valve in question.

In two sequences of paintings, Cat Diary and Heart Diary, the images are left to speak for themselves. In a flat painting style with echoes of Tom Wesselman and late Matisse, that here seems tight, perhaps purposely restricting, Mills puts her cats, and her romantic longings, in their domestic context but shows no faces; there is no subject, only the object of desire, or rather its tokens.

On a table, along with Turning Off the Water are other 'tactile books'. What context is one to assume for these 'journals', stuffed, literally, with intimacies verbal and actual? Is it legitimate to think of the landmarks of female yearning, Woolf, Colette, Plath? Are we in the realm of psychoanalytical fact and fictions directed by Lacan and Juliet Mitchell, or, if such a thing were feasible, is the starting point a tabula rasa with honesty the only guide? The clue is perhaps to be found in a third sequence of smaller paintings made last year in New York. The sequence is a diary recording her moods, preferences, and moves, in alternate paintings and painted text. 'Where would I be if I didn't paint?' 'I don't understand my paintings in New York.' 'My paintings embarrass me.' An acute sense of embarrassment permeates everything in the show but it is not just that public display is made with effort, expressing anything at all is an effort. Whether she continues to paint to overcome the embarrassment, or to indulge it, remains an open question contributing substantially to the interest of the work.


Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985.


Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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