The image in The Gathering Anguish Strikes Beneath... is a female profile inscribed in a continous white line on a dark ground. This motif is taken from a black and white lino-cut by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), made in 1943 as an illustration to Henri de Montherlant’s (1896–1972) novel Pasiphaë, published in the following year. It was from Montherlant’s text that Murphy also borrowed the line ‘The gathering anguish strikes beneath your throat’, which he used for the title of his own work. The backwards tilting angle of the figure and the sombre ground suggest that the subject is being undermined both psychologically and pictorially. Murphy chose this image for its ambiguity, as it seems to suggest both extreme pleasure and extreme anguish.Through this ambiguity of Pasiphaë’s pose, the artist in turn also alludes to Immanuel Kant’s notion of the Sublime, which can trigger emotions of both grief and pleasure simultaneously. In Greek mythology Pasiphaë, the daughter of Helios, was given in marriage to King Minos of Crete. When Minos refused to sacrifice a white bull to the sea god Poseidon, Pasiphaë was cursed by Poseidon with an irresistible passion for the bull. Driven mad with desire Pasiphaë mated with the animal and gave birth to the horrifying half-bull, half-human creature known as the Minotaur.This mythical beast represents the twin aspects of the human character – the intellectual and the bestial. By alluding to the Minotaur the artist thereby reaffirms the work’s overriding themes of opposition and turmoil.
Since the mid 1980s John Murphy’s paintings have generally taken the form of a found image, or fragment of an image, inscribed in an abstract field and often accompanied by a poetic segment of text, which can appear as a title. These texts are taken from a variety of sources, seldom directly identified by the artist. This fractured image-world relationship constitutes an anti-formalist language that is impersonal in appearance, and uses memory and emotion as the keys to universal rather than to personal experience. His work can thus be seen as part of a particularly European, poetic or symbolist tradition, which in the twentieth century has included Surrealism and Nouveau Réalisme and, more recently, the work of the artist-poet, Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976). In ways similar to these artists and writers Murphy demonstrates an interest in the relationship between vision, objects, and language.
While studying at Chelsea School of Art (1964-68), Murphy painted monochrome abstract paintings, and the artist’s early interests in the works of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and Barnett Newman (1905-1970) have remained evident throughout his development. The use of a single line against a flat dark ground in The Gathering Anguish Strikes Beneath... recalls Newman’s ‘zip’ paintings. Murphy animates the line element through the simplest of means and demonstrates our instinctive tendency to find face-like, and therefore familiar, structures in the most abstract of patterns.
As a result of being taken out of context this lone pictorial element becomes increasingly mysterious, enigmatic and fetishistic. In his essay, ‘The Pathos of Absence- John Murphy’s Inscriptions’ (in John Murphy, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel/Arnolfini, p.11, 1987), Michael Newman draws attention to another preoccupation in Murphy’s work: the relation of Eros, the god of love, to Thanatos, the god of death. Newman describes sexuality and death as marking the ‘limits of being where absence is encountered’. (p.11).The author concludes that ‘Absence cannot, however be encountered as such, but only through the trace, the mark of the absence of presence like the track of an animal which has already departed’. (Ibid) The sinuous line in Murphy’s painting could be considered as the trace of a departed presence or of one which may only be imagined.
John Murphy, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London, 1985.
John Murphy, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel/Arnolfini, 1987.