Tarot Cards, Henna Hands and Porcelain Girls in Margaret Murphy’s Must-See Show at NJCU

“To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.” – John Waters

In her paintings, videos, and collages, Margaret Murphy either debases Catholic icons to the lowly status ordinarily set aside for mass-produced knickknacks — or she elevates dime-store trash to the celestial ranks usually reserved for patron saints and martyrs. At first glance, Murphy’s work can strike the viewer as the “found paintings” often seen hanging inside thrift stores. On repeated viewings, her work reveals an artist who is not only in total command of her medium and vision, but in conversation with the masters of art history as well.

All of this combines to make Margaret Murphy’s new exhibition, “Decoding the Marketplace: coupons, dollar stores, eBay,” the must-see show of the season.

Dr. Midori Yoshimoto, director of galleries at New Jersey City University, first encountered Murphy’s paintings of porcelain figurines at the Jersey City Museum several years ago. Yoshimoto was struck with their consistency, clarity, and strong visual appeal.

“What I like particularly about her work is the accessibility of the subject matter: Tarot cards, henna hands, and dollar-store porcelain dolls, which are all found in our daily life,” Yoshimoto says. “Yet they can be mysterious and seductive to invite varied reactions from the viewer. Over the course of a decade, one can see her development as an artist in producing numerous series that have consistently critiqued American commodity culture.”

To view Murphy’s work is to genuflect before a plastic altar wrapped in second-hand chintz that was mass-produced in a random factory somewhere in China. My favorite paintings of hers include the images of porcelain girls that read like Zurbarán’s portraits of female saints and martyrs, but for the trash collector who cries during feminine hygiene commercials. It’s as if a halo of White Castle sliders reverberates around her pictures. To create great masterworks, artists require muses. A 45-year-old Picasso used teenage Marie-Thérèse Walter. Francis Bacon used rogue, alcoholic George Dyer. Like the aforementioned artists, Murphy, too, has a muse, but it’s a cheap, bazooka-bosomed figurine in fishnets and stilettos.

To read her pictures of porcelain dolls as lightweight would be easy but dead wrong. Murphy is indebted to the critique of how women are objectified in American society. She writes: “The female figurines represent the ‘woman’ in a post-feminist analytical arena, one that has been objectified on many levels.” In her work, Murphy is constantly returning to issues regarding gender, class and consumerism.

Also, she is constantly pushing herself as a painter — experimenting with medium, color, composition, light and shadow. The paintings of figurines owe as much to the 19th-century French painter Manet, or the 20th-century American Alex Katz, as to kitsch. Murphy draws inspiration from her native Baltimore and adopted hometown of Jersey City, with its diversity, blue-collar neighborhoods and eclectic mishmash of dollar stores.

What is most fascinating about Murphy’s work is how she is able to balance the “serious” and the “playful,” without allowing one to undo the other. She is often cited as working in the tradition of Pop Art, which is true, but it’s not the whole truth. Like Warhol, she is concerned with making art about banal objects of mass consumption. But where Warhol was cool and ironic, Murphy has the sweetness of a cherry Blow Pop.

If you go to one exhibition this season in Jersey City or New York, make it Margaret Murphy’s “Decoding the Marketplace: coupons, dollar stores, eBay,” at New Jersey City University’s Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery.


The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery  
Hepburn Hall, room 323
New Jersey City University
2039 Kennedy Blvd. Jersey City, NJ  

Exhibition Runs: January 30 – March 7, 2012

Artist’s Reception: Thursday, February 2, from 5 – 7:30 pm

Artist Talk: March 6 at 5 pm (in the gallery)

For more information on the artist, please visit margaret-murphy.com.   

Photos courtesy of Margaret Murphy

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at brendanscottcarroll.com.