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Navigating Deirdre Murphy’s Oculus at Esther Klein Gallery

At the center of Deirdre Murphy’s solo exhibition Oculus, is a cluster of small paintings on panel; this grouping of loosely representational studies shows the range of her research into biological patterns. Many of the highly-chromatic, painterly compositions visually reference the title of the show using a repeated round shape as a formal structure to circumscribe her organic imagery. The title Oculus also refers to the shape of a lens, found in a microscope or telescope the artist uses to observe nature. Likewise, an oculus can be an aperture, an opening to the sky. In ancient temples, an oculus not only brought light into a dome, illuminating the architecture within, it also allowed worshippers to contemplate the heavens above.

Deirdre Murphy invites simultaneous readings, overlaying seemingly binary modes: micro/macro, inside/out, night/day, natural/man-made. Throughout the recent work in Oculus – which consists of acrylic paintings, mixed media and collaborative sculpture– there is a structural thread: naturalistic elements are paired with patterns of visualized data. The artwork remains fresh and responsive; it is clearly informed by scientific data but not driven by it.

The well-paced exhibition at Esther Klein Gallery is at once a culmination and expansion of Deirdre Murphy’s three-month BioArt Residency. Although she has worked with scientists before, the residency at Integral Molecular was the first time Murphy worked within a lab. In a white coat, gloved and goggled, the artist set up her paints next to scientists studying virus behavior on a cellular level. As the scientists shared images, Murphy would simultaneously capture them with water-based media. She explains the parallel research: “scientists and artists are both keen observers of the natural world, but their processes and what they are looking for is completely different.”

During her time in the lab, Murphy worked with an experimental mindset; the results are apparent in several of her Lab Studies, smaller paintings on panel in which the glow of protein biomarkers are captured in loose pools of saturated color. Since the conclusion of her BioArt Residency in 2018, Murphy has continued to study and refine this body of work, incorporating data from previous and on-going research.

The artist is acute observer of formal patterns, finding visual correlations in cell migration, light pollution, avian flight patterns, and the matrix of the night sky. In Oculus, the geometry of constellations is elegantly captured in a pair of illuminated, aluminum sculptures that Murphy created with her husband, Scott White. In the hue-shifting, planar wall sculptures, each star is rendered as a pin-prick of colored light, recreating the firmament through delicately perforated metal.

As humans, we have long used stars to navigate, to find our way in the largeness of the world. The artist reminds us that we are not alone in that pursuit; song birds base their flight routes on the night sky. And while the distant stars seem beyond our reach, they are not; our actions affect change. In a nearby series of paintings, floating rectangles of color depict clusters of light pollution that –among other things– disrupt animal migrations.

Luna Moth is a small, quiet painting. In it, an etherial, lime-green moth is painted life-size, set against a circle of the night sky. Here, the inherent beauty of the natural world is shown in its delicacy. A nocturnal flier, the luna moth is also adversely affected by light pollution. Since its lifespan is so short (and it is not active in the daylight,) the moth is a rare gift to observe. Deirdre Murphy’s painting offers a shared moment of awe but also of ecological responsibility. In the context of the exhibition, the circle of sky behind the luminous insect could read as the whole planet or a single petri dish. By shifting our perspective – from micro to macro and back again – Deirdre Murphy allows us to recalibrate our position to the natural world, illuminating the interdependence of life, and our minute but fateful impact on the planet.

Photo Credit: Jaime Alvarez