Steve Murphy’s sculptures have an undeniable presence, and remind us that reductive forms can be elegant and seductive. Murphy’s attention to developing rich surface finishes in his sculptures takes them beyond the impersonal industrial aesthetic of the minimalists. His sculptures, on view at William Campbell in Fort Worth, clearly show the hand of the artist. Pieces in the show range from 13 inches high up to seven and half feet tall. Most of the works are volumetric forms consisting of flat and curving sides that interplay; the dramatic tension in many of these pieces is heightened by carefully controlled and visual balancing effects.
When viewed from certain angles, What You Expected (top image) threatens to tip over, but the dangerous leaning of the piece is an illusion that’s countered by its flared base of lead and wood. The oxidized steel sculpture Remembers Everything appears to be poised en pointe, while other sculptures have a rocker-type base.
Murphy initially creates some of his sculptural forms by laminating and shaping a core material of wood, which in some cases is transformed by wrapping the three-dimensional shape with a taut ‘skin’ of metal, such as lead. Lead sheets are cut to fit over the wooden base, the seams are soldered, then extensive burnishing further molds and shapes the lead to the base form.
Hanging from the wall and looking much like a huge needle, Starting Clean is a seemingly simple pointed form. But its basal tip creates tension as it lifts away from the wall, and every square inch of its lead-covered wood form has been obsessively burnished, leaving a subtly bumpy, shiny surface. It and several other vertical wall pieces appear almost like modernist totems, with their carefully worked surfaces providing a ritualistic touch. What You Expected, cited above, illustrates the variable surface qualities of lead—on this piece, the lead skin has a mysteriously cloudy appearance. One of the most visually arresting surface finishes used on these metal-wrapped pieces is oxidized lead. From a distance, its mottled coloration looks like granite. Up close, the smooth finish breaks into white and light and dark gray splotches, as it does with Should have seen It Coming, cited above.
Another finish Murphy employs is to cover the wooden base form with a gleaming coat of graphite or gold leaf. The grain of the wood is still visible through the sheen of these applied surfaces. Gold leaf is a relatively new material for Murphy to work with, and he employs it in two pieces here. The lustrous finish of leaf applied to The Right Dynamics for the New Frontier creates a visual appearance of lightness that carries through to the shape of its wooden form that lifts off from the wall at top and bottom. The Painful Truth consists of three sharpened spires of gold leaf-covered wood that dramatically project from the wall at an acute angle.
Murphy has also found ways to enhance the surface of steel sculptures that he has fabricated. Pieces such as I Can Feel It have oxidized, rusty surfaces that display slight textures where the artist has dripped various chemicals to create a reddish brown patina. Most of the steel pieces are hollow enclosed volumes, but Pride Obscures Achievement is formed from a single folded piece of metal. The hole cut out of this simple rocking form creates evocative shadows.
One needs to see these works in person to fully appreciate their subtle volumes. The name of the show is All the Words Have Been Spoken, and the title makes sense; photographic views often reveal only one planar surface, when the forms actually taper to a knife edge, or swell outward at the base to achieve an unexpected balance. Murphy, who holds a BA from the University of Houston and resides in Houston, has been featured in three solo exhibitions at the Campbell gallery during the last nine years, and well as participating in numerous solo and group exhibitions around the U.S. The artist states: “I am dealing with the classic elements of sculpture: form, volume, surface, and edge. This current, nine-year body of work is the result of a continued reductive investigation of those sculptural elements.” These sculptures are so elemental in form that, as the exhibition title suggests, they express a wordless poetry.
Steve Murphy: All the Words Have Been Spoken, through Oct. 22 at William Campbell Contemporary Art, Fort Worth.