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Taxidermy meets photography in Todd Murphy’s new work

Todd Murphy

Todd Murphy

Exhibit
Todd Murphy’s work is on view at Jackson Fine Art, 3115 E. Shadowlawn Ave., through Jan. 16. www.jacksonfineart.com

By Catherine Fox
Walking through Todd Murphy’s cavernous studio feels a bit like Gulliver’s travels.
A life-size photo of a charging mastodon, to which Murphy has added sharp metal tusks, in one room is followed by a tiny, elaborate natural history museum full of Lilliputian skeletons, stuffed animals and other specimens in vitrines and dioramas.
Like Gulliver, the Atlanta artist is an adventurous sort. He moves among painting, sculpture and photography with the same agility that he works up and down the scale spectrum.
In fact, the mastodon is downright puny compared to his latest installation. The piece encompasses the elevator lobbies of 20 floors at Sovereign, a mixed-use complex in Buckhead. It consists of 5-by-10-foot photographs in light boxes, which together represent a tree, from roots to topmost branches.
Here’s the fillip: Each image is a section of a different tree, each occupied by different birds and set against a different background. Murphy shot photographs of trees all around the city. The birds, however, are stuffed specimens, which perch on branches through the magic of digital manipulation.
“The Sovereign Tree” is not accessible to the public, but you can see a sampling of the images at Jackson Fine Art. A piece in a similar vein hangs over the lobby fireplace of the Palomar Hotel in Midtown.
Murphy has seamlessly integrated as many as 10 images to create a single piece, but the photos were shot at different depths of field, which registers a feeling that something is not quite right. The tension between the illusionistic and the artificial gives the photos an eerie zip.
This first serious effort in digital photography is in other respects typically Todd, said Anna Walker Skillman, owner of Jackson Fine Art and Murphy’s studio manager in the ’90s.
“Todd is not afraid to embrace new technology,” she said. “His use of photography in the ’90s was very innovative. But there’s always continuity. The idea of layering is basic to his work” and the same imagery cycles in and out.
Murphy wore another hat at Sovereign: curator of its art collection. He assembled an impressive photo collection, hung in private spaces, and mixed two-dimensional works by Atlantans Kathryn Refi and Radcliffe Bailey with sculptures by Deborah Butterfield and REM front man Michael Stipe in the lobby.
The lobby also features two of his paintings. Art mavens who were in Atlanta during the ‘90s will recognize them as classic Murphy, the kind of work that has attracted a bevy of devoted collectors, not to mention quite a few artists who brazenly copy him.
Monumental in scale, they feature simple but resonant images — a ballerina dress, a horse in profile — swathed in an inky darkness consisting of many layers of tar, resin and paint. Murphy covers the painted photo with a sheet of Plexiglas, which might also be painted on.
The result is lush and enigmatic, dramatically lit from within. That light, said dealer Ray Frost Fleming, “is what’s magical about his work.”
Fleming, the director of Robert Kidd Gallery in Birmingham, Mich., explains: “The light goes through the Plexiglas, hits the canvas and bounces back to it. “The light refracts, which makes it twice as intense.”
Together with the deep, dark background, the light creates a baroque, theatrical effect, what he calls “the Rembrandt glow.”
The mysterious character of the imagery contributed to the electricity. Murphy hints at private meanings but prefers to leave interpretation open. That’s actually the point.
“If I paint a woman, then it already starts to define the narrative,” he explained. “If it’s the dress, people can finish the narrative them themselves. These are images that can mean different things to different people.”
Murphy, who hit upon the idea when he grabbed two slides together, still returns to the format. He finds it a flexible vehicle for formal variation. In the dress at Sovereign, the bodice is a photograph but the area below is a hollow niche in which he’s placed branches and strips of cloth to suggest the flouncy skirt.
“It’s a Zen thing,” he said. “You could draw a spoon every day.”
The miniature museum is a bit of a Zen thing, too. An avid birder and natural history fan, he started building it seven years ago just for fun, making the pieces out of toys and other found objects and scraps of material.
The impetus was some miniature sketchbooks he had made, which he displayed in a vitrine. Soon the museum became a three-dimensional sketchbook.
“I found it a good way to work through an idea,” he said. “It opens me up. I’ve been interested in scale changes. This allows me to think in all scales.”
As his interest grew, he bought the contents of a Belgian science room, which included some of the stuffed birds he photographed for Sovereign, as well as specimens and skeletons. Together with the museum, these objects have inspired a body of work, ranging from wonderfully imaginative fictive specimen-sculptures made of found objects to assemblages that reflect the ordering and classifying aspects of science, as well as life-size tableaux.
These days, Murphy is thinking about urban scale. He cites “A Monument to Sally Hemings,” a temporary site piece done in Charlottesville, Va., his home between 1996 and 2005. He smiles remembering the 30-foot-tall dress made of sailcloth billowing in the wind atop a 100-foot-tall tower.
The process of installation was part of the piece, from lifting the metal dress form off the ground to fitting the dress over it to the sight of the crane maneuvering to place it.
“It was beautiful,” added the otherwise modest and unassuming artist.
Murphy would like to do more of that in Atlanta. In the meantime, he is busy with other projects. There are paintings waiting to be finished. There are the multiples he’s created in a venture with BoBo Intriguing Objects, an Atlanta-based home-furnishing wholesaler. He wants to explore ideas about sculptural photographs, as suggested by the mastodon.
And he is moving to a new studio. He sold the Belgian science room and plans to store his miniature museum.
“I want the new studio to be a blank slate,” he said.
As Skillman notes, “Todd is an artist who is continually redefining himself.”

Catherine Fox blogs about art and architecture at www.ArtsCriticAtl.com

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