Neil Murphy, Working the Edge

Neil Murphy, Working the Edge

My first meeting with Neil Murphy was back in 1991 when he was a young father and our children were playmates. He worked holed up in a dark vine-covered garage in the backyard of his home in Burlingame. He would emerge every now and then for coffee and a jaunty word, then disappear back into his work. I immediately recognized dedication, and when I learned he was an artistic web designer it made sense. Who wouldn’t want to disappear into a deep and dark work cave if he was combining a love for aesthetics with the then new concept of web design. Talk about exciting times!

As the years passed I enjoyed hearing stories about the cutting edge advances of web and digital newsletter design. Murphy’s company, Ghostdog Designs (partnering with wife, Juliana Fuerbringer), was right there in the thick of it all, making visionary computer choices where few had gone before. My first introduction to Photoshop was soon after it was introduced, when Murphy superimposed a small image of my daughter onto a photo of our garden so that she appeared to be riding our white cat in amongst the flowers.

During this time Murphy voiced a determination to someday get back into traditional painting (he had studied at the San Francisco Art Institute) and soon I began to see large canvases quietly emerge from within the cracks of time between web projects. These days he is fully committed to melding his digital design skills with acrylic and ink brushwork on canvas and other surfaces.

Neil Murphy in his studio.

The artist, born and raised in Hawaii, has an abiding interest in science, with his early work exploring the biology of land, plant, and human/animal forms.  More recently he has expanded into the newer dimensions of neurobiology, creating imaginative landscapes of the mind that juxtapose directive synapse symbolism with color fields that speak more of diverse emotive inclinations eveh though the factual science is also present.

Neil Murphy explains his process this way: “I find that doing a drawing of a neurobiological topic, and then doing a painting of it, is a great way to learn. It is also a great way to explain things to other people, which brings out my inner teacher. Most people seem fascinated by neurobiological processes and hadn’t realized how tricky they are.”

While usually working on natural fibers and building up his own layers of paint ground (rather than relying on commercially gessoed canvas) Murphy also prints multiple additions onto art paper. Additionally he has been exploring 3D interpretations, giving a physical depth to his brain projects. One of the gifts he was delighted to find that carries over from being a Photoshop expert is that he can create acrylic paintings, scan them into a computer, tweak the composition, coloring and line details, print onto an interesting surface, and then paint or ink on top of that. This creates dialoguing between traditional and more contemporary media techniques. This month Murphy is spending time at Magnolia Editions printing acrylic-based transparent imagery onto Plexiglas. Perhaps he will scrape or paint on top of the prints to improve and excite the surface. When finalized these varied 3D layered pieces will have air and light traveling through to illuminate their complexities. The viewers will control their dialogue with the art by shifting where they stand and how they pass their eyes through the transparent layers.

"Map of Complex Passion" from the side and a detail looking straight in through layers.

This is again experimental territory and troubles with perfecting techniques abound. One might imagine Murphy being frustrated at the trial and error aspect, but instead the painter says, “I love to fabricate things... to have a limited supply of tools and maybe Orchard Supply as my supply store. I love to figure out how to mount and separate and provide spacers for the Plexi layers.” He explains that, “By making all of these mistakes you learn a better way to do it. I love to have errors and mistakes come into my work. I depend on it. I use a lot of water when I paint -- acrylic washes that are thinned way down. Water has a mind of its own. It’s a little bit hard to control and unpredictable results happen when water dries with the pigment in it. I love all of the serendipity changes that happen in the finished piece.”

Much of Murphy’s imagery involves a sense of landscape. The artist grew up surrounded by two huge mountain ranges on the island of Oahu. “The jagged forms of the windward side of the Island where erosion has carved the mountains into lots of crevices and valleys, those forms and shapes appear in my work frequently.” He adds that he does not duplicate reality, but rather creates landscapes that are fanciful variations of the real places. These form the backgrounds for more traditional landscapes as well as for his portrayals of brain processes. “I use a lot of water in my work -- flowing streams. I use lots of vectors in my work that show a direction of some kind of flow. A vector is a line with an arrow. And I might show wind moving through a valley or water flowing in a stream... or a thought process moving through a neuron.”

"Small Cloud Arrives"

As to the completed works, Neil Murphy’s art intrigues from multiple perspectives. At a distance the work blends abstract compositions with balanced patterns of vibrant color and often-recognizable large biological forms. Moving closer reveals a different story. Viewers can’t help but enjoy following the details of the work which might entail directive arrows, tiny mathematical symbols, careening lines, illuminating edges, and/or weird creatures that at first might not have been visible. I have a fondness for detail work myself and have many a day allowed a lazy eye to traverse Murphy canvases, basically taking my mind on far-out Hawaii-hued walks into the skyscape-landscape of the mind. This is trippy stuff, but for me the Aloha factor releases me into a serious bliss zone. Come to think about it, Neil Murphy was exploring the edge of a remarkable new light reality when I first met him, and he still is today.

Neil Murphy maintains an art studio upstairs at PAI (Studio 29). His “morose and artistic” sidekick, Sophie the dog, is frequently found curled up nearby. The Murphy children are now grown and exploring philosophical and artistic ventures of their own. 


“PAI on My Mind” contains the personal observations of the artist in Studio 26, and not necessarily those of PAI as a whole.


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