Jeff Murphy: provocative on purpose
Digital artist knows his work is prone to misinterpretation
The pointedhoods on the gathered figures in artist Jeff Murphy’s Convergence exhibit signify reaching toward heaven, much in the same way a church steeple is designed.
In “Rabbits in the Real Alcazar” and “Holy Week Procession, Seville,” lay members of Catholic brotherhoods march through the streets of the Andalusian region of Spain during Semana Santa, the country’s Holy Week.
When told that the images reminded more than one viewer at the 1078 Gallery of the Ku Klux Klan, the North Carolina digital artist and photographer explained that the Nazareños wear pointed hoods to signify something utterly positive as opposed to the negativity of racial hatred. If anything, he pointed out, the KKK stole the look from the Nazareños, who have been in existence since the 13th century.
However, Murphy, who is also an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, acknowledged that some will find the imagery in his work disturbing.
“I would have a hard time making any work that someone doesn’t find disturbing or offensive,” said Murphy. “Bible Stories disturbed and offended a lot of fundamentalist Christians, and some of my use of Islamic mosques offends some Muslims. But that’s the reason I make the work—so that it provokes discussion, and folks realize that religion and spiritual identity is a complex and multi-faceted thing.”
The Bible Stories series included a piece in which a Bible-evoking image of an angel is juxtaposed with rotting fruit, electrical wiring and insects straight out of a science textbook, and a piece featuring an X-ray-like image of a human pelvis containing a photo negative of the Virgin Mary and child.
The 43-year-old Murphy grew up steeped in the teachings of the Bible, having been raised by an Italian-American Catholic mother in Ohio, where he also attended parochial school as a child. Murphy’s religious faith began to erode when he found himself “exposed to a larger picture of the world” at Ohio State University.
Murphy went through six or seven majors—including communications ("I thought I wanted to be a DJ"), engineering, sociology and biology—before ending up with a BFA in 1989 with a focus in photography. He went on to receive his MFA in 1995 at the University of Florida, where he studied under well-known, innovative photographer Jerry Uelsmann, who pioneered the creation of composite photographs using multiple negatives.
“I was one of those people who sort of ended up being an artist because of my curiosity,” Murphy reflected. “I wasn’t planning to be an artist.”
Murphy’s Italian roots, and his self-professed curiosity about the world and “how cultures develop … and fail,” prompted him to travel to Italy in the summer of 2000, then in subsequent summers to Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, Germany and Hungary. He traveled to Spain in 2006 and over the course of two months took many of the photographs used in the striking digital collages in Convergence.
Some of the pieces are as large as 44 by 90 inches and are printed using state-of-the-art UV-resistant pigments on poplin banners (which move gracefully at the slightest breeze generated by a passing spectator). They are all breathtaking in their richness of color and often-panoramic treatment of subject matter (a distinctly photographic technique imposed on these extremely painting-like pieces); their unconventional, tilted framing of the subject; and the thought-provoking nature of the subject matter itself.
Each piece offers a visual surprise—such as the goat functioning as a surrogate mother of sorts holding a baby in “Goat in the Alhambra” (the baby, incidentally, is a photograph of Murphy’s 3-month-old son, Quinn) or the Pope-like character with a bird beak for a nose in another.
All represent Murphy’s ongoing “quest for an epiphany” in his attempt through artistic exploration and expression to reconcile the scientific with the spiritual.
Murphy realizes that his work is cutting edge, both visually and in its constant dialogue between religious studies and other disciplines, such as art, science and technology. For that reason, among others, he is glad to be working in academia.
“I would have to be more conservative if I wasn’t an academic in order to sell in commercial galleries,” he said. “I like to talk about religion and how it relates to culture. That doesn’t really sell commercially.”