When a man displays monumental portraits of his fat naked self in drippy pink watercolor, a standing-room-only crowd shows up to hear him talk about it. There's a hunger in the audience, a craving to see Brian Murphy's real body and hear his real voice.
Things begin auspiciously enough. Murphy, Henry Art Gallery curator Liz Brown, and abstract painter Susan Dory take a seat at the front of the gallery, Winston Wächter Fine Art. Brown asks each artist to comment on the other's work. Right out of the gate, Dory, who makes strict, serial abstractions, describes Murphy's paintings as "bold" and "brave" depictions of a body marked as undesirable in a sociocultural context. She doesn't continue into body image, the gender politics of pink watercolor, and the nude through art history, or the connection between homophobia and obesity panic, but she certainly throws open the door.
Just as quickly, it swings closed. Talk between Dory, Brown, and Murphy turns to process, objecthood, and formalism. The somewhat incredible theme of the evening is how these two artists' paintings are not as different as they look. By the time Murphy throws out the detail that he sometimes has to lure himself into his studio with a doughnut or a sandwich, nobody even thinks to laugh. The most obvious facts have been conceptualized beyond recognition. Murphy's feisty, fleshy paintings have become the elephants in the room that we are not going to talk about. Amid all this gentility, I find myself wishing there were some drunken frat guys in the room, or a child.
"It's like talking about politics or something," Murphy said to me the next morning, when I called him to ask why he thought Dory's sociocultural line of questioning went nowhere. I asked whether he disliked the idea of talking about the paintings that way, and he launched into a tangential explanation of how spending time in Europe, where he had hoped to identify in a lineage of painters, made him realize he was instead seen foremost as an American glutton. Murphy was being revealing, but only in the blurriest way, much like his paintings.
"I've had some pretty interesting backhanded compliments: 'Oh, you're a great painter, why are you painting that?'" he said. One local male critic even told Murphy that he ought to be painting the opposite sex, Murphy said.
British painter Jenny Saville's similarly distorted nude self-portraits have always been understood in feminist terms, while Murphy's paintings consistently have been removed from the realm of identity politics. This made sense for his earlier works, which rendered his flesh as coldly as an abstracted landscape (two smaller pieces at Winston Wächter demonstrate this effect). But in the new, larger-than-life series, Murphy stands full-frame, pressing the issue of social unease as well as invoking a lingering embarrassment about figuration and the male nude. These pink, dimpled bodies are as obdurately self-exposing as they are evasive. They're not just theoretical.