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February 20, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
It takes two, sometimes three, solid looks to see that there’s something off-kilter about Dennis Murphy’s works of art. The extensive details that go into making his paintings as true-to-life as possible are almost as unbelievable as the paintings themselves.
Murphy, a Columbia artist by way of Kalamazoo, Mich., works in the style of hyperrealism, crafting large-scale images so deep and vivid that they easily could be mistaken for a hi-res photo. An incredibly detail-oriented art form, hyperrealist illustration has a way of drawing viewers in and trapping them in a search for subtle hints of the image’s duplicity.
“It’s kind of a form of worship, I guess,” Murphy says of his pieces. “You just look at this small area of the thing and kind of get to know it, you know? The attention that you spend is rewarding.”
Murphy speaks deliberately and with consideration placed on each word, a reflection of his meticulous style of work.
Down to the last detail
With a background in illustration, Murphy says he’s been painting for 12 years, but only a little more than a year ago did he begin working in this photorealist style: a style that he says allows him to play to his strengths.
With works in the medium stretching back almost five decades, Close could easily be called one of the godfathers of hyperrealism. Known for his extremely lifelike and large-scale portraits, often of cultural figures such as former President Bill Clinton or Zhang Huan II, Close is known to experiment with distorted textures that give the effect of viewing the subject through mottled glass.
If you’ve walked around the halls of MU’s Memorial Union, you might have come across Spear’s three-part MU series. A local artist, Spear draws plenty of inspiration from his town. Although realism is an element of his works, simplified forms and a polished veneer place Spear’s works on the outside end of the spectrum.
Jackson, another Columbia artist, works primarily in watercolors. Jackson’s medium gives a unique feel to his brand of realism, from still lifes like his piece “Ménage à Trois” to more ornate works such as “Pilgrimage.”
Estes is a stalwart of photorealism, the movement that paved the road for hyperrealism. Most known for his bright, and mostly vacant cityscapes, Estes likes to play with reflections and create mesmerizingly complex scenes that can be seen in his works “The L Train” and “Telephone Booths.”
“I have really bad eyesight, so I wear really thick glasses,” Murphy says. “I focus about two inches away from the surface if I don’t have my glasses on. So it allows for me to do little tiny strokes, like less than a millimeter, and to deal with a brush with only three or four hairs."
The goal is to emulate the effect of realist painters such as Chuck Close or Richard Estes. Up close, you can make out the individual brushstrokes and design elements. Stepping back, however, they come together into one cohesive image that, other than its larger-than-life scale, could be mistaken for the real thing.
Murphy works by digitizing his subjects using a professional scanner (one of the perks of working as an illustrator) before enlarging them to 600 or 700 times their size. He then places a grid over the larger image and transfers each square inch by hand. Although the images typically are done with colored pencil on paper, some of Murphy’s works involve acrylic and oil paint and non-traditional surfaces.
In “Uncle Ray’s Potatochips,” for example, Murphy paints the emptied snack bag directly onto a clipboard. The positioning of the image of the bag, coupled with a lifelike rendering of its creases, shadows and bits of reflected light, has a way of blurring the lines between what’s three-dimensional and what’s flat.
Art or the real thing?
The overall effect in many of these pieces is that the artist has created an image that’s more real than reality. Although these illustrations and paintings are as absolutely convincing as the objects they take after, they’re not always 100 percent accurate.
Artists might choose to deepen shadows, brighten colors or simplify forms to bring out the essence of the object in a way that a completely loyal rendition of the subject cannot.
“It’s different from photography because it’s a judgment,” Murphy says. “Sometimes you hyperextend an element in the painting. It heightens awareness.”
In this sense, a little bit of a surrealist bent peeks through in his work. Murphy still recalls being enchanted as a student by a reproduction of Salvador Dalí’s “Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)” that he ran across in the back of a wallpaper shop. Murphy credits surrealists including Dalí, Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo alongside American realist illustrators N.C. Wyeth, Alexandre Hogue and Thomas Hart Benton as influences. You can see Murphy’s work for yourself at any of his ongoing exhibits. Through March 3, his work will be on display at Columbia College’s “Paper in Particular” show. The Columbia Art League’s exhibit “Please Don’t Touch” will also feature the artist through February 21.
Most recently, Murphy has had 18 of his works featured exclusively as part of the “Wraps & Maps” exhibit at MU’s Ellis Library. The gallery focuses on Murphy’s hyperrealist artwork as well as a series involving designs painted directly on Soviet-era maps.
For Murphy, it means a lot to share a space with some of Ellis Library’s other works.
“In the colonnades, they have glassed-in shelves, and what they have there is illustrations from the Middle Ages,” Murphy says. “You know, where monks used to write each paragraph and make an accompanying illustration? It’s nice to be in the same building with that stuff that is 15 hundred, maybe two thousand years old.”