MICHAEL MURPHENKO

An open invitation

Erik Empson [art critic's text]

The life and work of Michael Murphenko, still in his early thirties, has been punctuated by moments of movement, migration and displacement. Now settled in Ukraine, his painting is characterised by a burgeoning sensibility to inner experience, whether disconsolate or euphoric, presenting us with an exploration of humankind’s emotional palette that speaks at once of foreign, distant environments and close, intimate places of reflection.

If there has been an underlying direction to Murphenko's work to date, it seems to have been to act out on the canvas over any constraint, the inexorable expressive drive of the artist. Behind blank faces and hands, indestructible mirrors and the tunnelling eddies of evolving thoughts, very real sensations of fear, embarrassment, withdrawal and elation issue from the canvas. In all of his paintings, one gets a sense of the very real physical presence of the artist in his work. Expressive and visceral, his current painting refuses to resolve itself into outright abstraction or conceptualism, rather it is full of strangely familiar, oblique quizzical forms, and charged with a relentless emotional immediacy (Fire way; Fever 2007) that enjoins the viewer to share in its intensity.

The freedom in the artist’s style does not appear to be driven by a passion for liberty but is rather realised out of the painful actuality of it; the anguish of purpose in a world duly constituted by highly transient entities and immovable obstacles alike. The artist is apparently free to choose his style and technique, but they appear to have chosen him - he paints his feelings, and we don’t choose our emotions. An inner conflict is released on the canvas, a struggle between a romantic heaven and a heathen, enlightenment hell, with the artist acting out a Promethean role, playing with fire and enduring torment.

Something of the physicality of Murphenko's approach to his art is visibly engendered by his geographical situation. At times this is explicit (Strength, 2007; Ukrainia, 2007) in what appear to be sincere attempts to wrestle with symbolic rendering of metaphysical unities in the form of a nation. But even here, Murphenko is disassembling simple identities, the computer blue and yellows detaching themselves and forming new configurations of landscapes and political allegories (Family Tree, 2007; The Twist, 2007). These dissolutions at the level of colour and form appear to be relatively conscious processes and show a narrative element within Murphenko's work, one that beneath a surface of an expressionist primal vitality in colour, relates on a deeper level to questions of personal identity. The viewer is compelled to explore these regions; are those nascent womb-like whites in the oceans of blue memories of a different land, real or imagined?

Stylistically the works present us with a medley of artistic influences; each one is a protean singularity. The rounded forms and colours are at times reminiscent of Marc Chagall but convey a genuine and never conceited innocence. The suspended bodies (Breaking Ice, 1999; Eat 2007) have a Blake like ethereality, one that is bolstered by the poetic commentary and folklorist tales that Murphenko uses to accompany his work. Although the strength of the colour appears at times Fauvist, the subjects are rarely clearly delineated by simple lines. Rather the compositions open out on the canvas from bodies of colour, rising tides that lap the borders of higher terrain, at times threatening to swamp them leaving no trace.

Charged with a non-identical and lyrical energy, as fleeting unities, many of the paintings in the current exhibition expose a complicated relation between exterior and interior worlds. Their outsider element is muted by an overall compositional balance, but there are affinities within these differences, each is its own homage to variously constituted irrepressible drives to an art that selflessly explores the human condition, opening itself up to all of the vulnerabilities of laying itself bare in this way.

Also, at the heart of these compositions lies an unmistakable euphoria, a redemption of the spirit, a sensation of the irreducible and unrepeatable event, and an evocation of those 'magic places' where Murphenko's psychical domination of the canvas has in previous works produced masterly flourishes (Universal Energies I,II,III, 2001) that form brilliant but temporal connections with the absolute.

Suffering, breakthroughs and regeneration emerge as strong themes in Murphenko's Cut Open, whether celestial ascension (Ascending; Sky) or in the aqueous spaces of the interior (Kundalini; Plant) of fossilised spores or ghostly presences forming in liquid depths. Clearly, nature has an ally in this artist whose ten year career has been a chrysalis for a coral effusion of colour (Birth ; Butterfly), where blotches of intense attraction appear like sea anemones, shrouding the submerged limits of convention with improbable and unexpected forms of life (Fox; Sphinx).

The existential and emotional struggle of the artist, his unmistakable presence on the canvas, the burgeoning power of his original and unashamed sensibility, creates a living art that - like the folklore and fables of old that inform it - grows with the spectator. The deceptively simple forms have a frustrating or exhorting affect, colours narrate alluring and participatory lines of ascension that clasp at momentary but vanishing certainties, at some times awkwardly stumbling forward and at other times atavistically clawing at forsaken causes, but always inexorably reaching to the exterior, demanding the absolute and never abandoning hope.

Erik Empson

September, 2007