What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

November 29, 2018

Christopher Murphy

John Tottenham

Lora Schlesinger Gallery
October 20 - December 15, 2018

Christopher Murphy, "Wade" / John Tottenham, installation view

The pairing of John Tottenham and Christopher Murphy at Lora Schlesinger Gallery is a thoughtful juxtaposition particularly because both artists draw from historical images to create intricate black and white works on paper that have a nostalgic aura.

It is always a pleasure to see new works by Christopher Murphy who has been showing with Lora Schlesinger since 2003. Murphy is a skilled draftsman and painter and it is exciting to see his most recent work— subtle and subdued graphite drawings based on both personal and historical of black and white photographs. Although these works do not possess the colorful palette of his paintings, Murphy imbues them with the gritty aura of news imagery. Their message is powerful, as Murphy depicts impending doom and catastrophes that parallel current world events. His subjects include bombings, fires and floods as well as natural disasters.

When viewing Plume (all works 2018), it is impossible not to thing about the recent fires in Southern and Northern California. Here, Murphy depicts smoke emanating from a roped off area in the foreground of the composition. It billows toward the nearby hillside as a mother holding the hand of her daughter gazes at the phenomenon— a beautiful and chilling sight. Other drawings share this sense of surprise, mystery and other-worldliness. Chasm pictures the destruction of a large expanse of rock separating three figures who now stand on opposite sides of the split rock looking down into the water and rubble. Wade is a detailed rendering of the main street of a flooded contemporary town. A man stands knee deep in the water. In the distance, people paddle a canoe. In Lucky Strike, roof top bystanders watch flames and smoke fill the streets below, as a dark cloud of ash overtakes the streets of an urban environment.

Murphy's works have always explored some kind of duality— whether utilizing different styles of painting (abstract and representational in the same work) or the juxtaposition of past and present— and these pieces continue that investigation by presenting terror and beauty simultaneously. He finds stasis in these tragic moments. While the works are for the most part depictions of urban or natural landscapes, Murphy often includes a figure for both scale and as a representation of man's helplessness and insignificance with respect to the perils.

John Tottenham's Emptyscapes feature mostly people-less places— wide angled vistas filled with timeless small town buildings, telephone polls, electrical towers and railroad tracks that vanish into the distant horizon. The casual style of his ink on paper drawings have the appeal of sketch-book doodles. They are often hung salon style—in loose grids— extending across gallery walls. Tottenham is also a poet, and he includes hand scrawled texts and collaged snippets from a range of printed sources which give his pieces a narrative quality. Although some of the writing has a sarcastic greeting card feel: My Sadness is Deeper than Yours, With So Much Unfinished So Much Unbegun, Maybe I Can Be a Posthumous Failure Too, the accompanying illustrations have a sparseness and detached point of view that echoes old postcards and 19th century documentary photographs of the West.

Youthful Melancholy Was So Much More Pleasant is a drawing of a telephone pole lined rural road dotted with small-scale industrial buildings. Two figures, one in the foreground the other further down the road stride through the otherwise barren and banal landscape. Tottenham's title is handwritten across the top of the composition above collaged snippets of typed text about the size of fortune cookie quotes. Culled from other unattributed poets, they read: "I have never wavered in my vocation, but I have not lived up to it" ... "whole lifetimes given over to a vocation for which the world in general has so little use" ... "the system: 'I alone create a product that society does not want.'" ... "the thought that the deepest form of inauthenticity is to be a worldly success."

Although Tottenham does not credit his appropriated material, these fragments anchor the work in a meta narrative that goes beyond visual representation. Tottenham uses his understated drawings to contrast deeper sentiments about the state of the world and his relationship to it as a poet and artist.

Together Tottenham's and Murphy's artworks present a bleak outlook, yet they do not suggest hopelessness. Perhaps through the process of their creating, the positive aspects of humanity reign.