A Realist’s New Paintings Winnowed to to Bare Essentials

“A difficult artist”-that’s how I’ve heard people describe Catherine Murphy. How much of a commendation can that be? As someone who has long admired her forbidding brand of realist painting, I’d say it’s a pretty big commendation, though the work won’t be to everyone’s taste. Looking at Ms. Murphy’s recent paintings and drawings, on display at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., I unexpectedly found myself entertaining the idea that they might not be to anyone’s taste.

Ms. Murphy’s paintings run against the grain of contemporary culture. They’re obdurate and slow; they don’t give of themselves freely. Her subjects are almost maddeningly mundane-an old photograph; a hole in the snow; the back of a friend’s head; the pockets of a paint-stained shirt. Ms. Murphy’s touch is deadpan, shorn of affect; her demeanor is distant yet blunt. As feats of representation, the paintings are dutifully put into shape, yet they’re framed in a skewed and discomfiting manner. With their abrupt cropping of pictorial elements and unsettling manipulations of scale, they thwart the ready gratifications of realism. Ms. Murphy prevents us from getting cozy with illusion.

This doesn’t necessarily make her an anti-realist-a fidelity to the world of things counts for a lot in the work-but it does make the paintings hard going. There’s a bullheadedness to Ms. Murphy’s enterprise, a principled refusal to allow the viewer easy access to aesthetic experience. It’s as if she were daring us to look at the pictures. This quietly combative approach won’t endear Ms. Murphy to a wide audience. Those inclined to grapple with a work of art on its own terms are encouraged to tough it out: When Ms. Murphy is on, she brings a daunting concentration of means to the elusive and often puzzling vagaries of experience.

The drawings, done with graphite on paper, are more approachable than the paintings, more intimate and finely honed. They’re unrelenting in their beauty. In Ms. Murphy’s hands, a sofa scratched to pieces by the family cat is both a paean to domesticity-or, rather, its tribulations-and a meditation on mortality. (An abiding sense of finality pervades the entirety of Ms. Murphy’s corpus.) In Lampshade Reflected on a Painted Wall (2002), a tour de force of meticulous craft, Ms. Murphy details each and every irregularity of an interior wall. When the pieces are expressly formal-as in 11 lbs. (2003), an homage to the underlying geometry of a cardboard box-they glint with a sly humor.

Some of the pictures are merely quizzical and, as such, disappointing. When Ms. Murphy spends an inordinate amount of time delineating her husband’s nipple or depicting light as it glances off the pages of a glossy magazine, you have to wonder why she’s applying her gift to pedantic glosses on intimacy and perception. The experiments with multiple canvases are self-conscious and misconceived. Why, you wonder, is she wasting her time? Mostly, Ms. Murphy wastes no one’s time, certainly not in any of the drawings or in Chair (2003), The Back of Her Head (2004) and Under the Snow (2003), canvases in which narrative is winnowed to the sparest of essentials.

Would that an intrepid curator (preferably a curator working for a New York City museum) saw fit to mount a retrospective of Ms. Murphy’s art. Not only would the exhibition honor an artist of significant accomplishment, it would situate the new paintings within the broader context of one woman’s vision. This request isn’t purely altruistic, mind you. Frankly, I can’t quite make out if the new work has become narrower in focus or farther-reaching in effect, whether they have developed nuances or have shunted them to the side. It’s frustrating, really. Then again, Ms. Murphy wouldn’t have it any other way. When she’s at her best, neither would we.

Catherine Murphy: New Paintings and Drawings, 2001-2004 is at Lennon, Weinberg Inc., 514 West 25th Street, until March 26.

Double Dutch

How Dutch are the works on paper of Vincent Hamel and Henri Plaat, the subject of an exhibition at Howard Scott Gallery? Is it at all possible to make the Holland connection without having been clued in by the show’s title, Duet: Two Artists in Amsterdam? Neither man is a billboard for all things Netherlandish. Besides, isn’t localism an anachronism in our globalist age and abstraction a universal language?

Art shouldn’t be relegated to being a coefficient of sociology (or stereotype), but nationality can’t help but wheedle its way to the fore. The drawings of Mr. Hamel and the collages of Mr. Plaat strike me as taking a humble and homey-that is to say, typically Dutch-pride in scale. Neither man’s work is much larger than a sheet of 81¼2-by-11 paper, nor do the pieces want (or, in fact, need) to be. A palpable sense of decorum-indeed, of common sense-is inherent in their efforts. What else would you expect from artists whose forebears carved their home from out of the sea?

Both artists share a love for the density, tactility and delicacy of materials. Mr. Hamel layers acrylics, wax crayon and, most memorably, ball-point pen to give body to gently shifting fields of color and texture. Mr. Plaat aligns wrinkled, cracked and abraded surfaces within irregular architectonic armatures, making for compositions that bring to mind the whimsical vistas of Paul Klee and the errant geometry of Kasimir Malevich.

Unwilling to upset the Modernist apple cart, Mr. Plaat and Mr. Hamel prefer to uncover and, subsequently, refine a niche within it. They do so through a deliberate and bemused exploration of the methods to which they have limited themselves. Their art is far from epochal and gratifying because of it. Modesty, particularly when it is given idiosyncratic form, can’t help but be becoming. That’s what Mr. Plaat and Mr. Hamel embrace and provide.

Duet: Two Artists in Amsterdam: Vincent Hamel and Henri Plaat is at the Howard Scott Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, seventh floor, until March 5.