Three bodies are climbing heavenward in the painting "Skyscraper" by Tim Murphy.
It's no easy hike. The woman at the bottom of the triad stands on one foot, balancing the weight of the other two on her back. The muscular middle figure, of ambiguous gender, is also poised on a single foot, while the tiny female figure at the top of the heap is on tippy toes.
What are we to make of these precariously piled humans? They're sturdy, and they're determined. Like dancers, they shoot out a leg in arabesque or an arm in port de bras, deploying every available body part to keep up their delicate balance. Even so, the trio seems at risk as they perform their desperate airborne gymnastics.
The painting is custom-made for our Age of Anxiety. It appears at a political moment when the American project of democracy seems more in peril every day. Murphy's determined figures are trying to stay safe and steady, but there is no guarantee that they will.
The colors Murphy chooses intensify the sense of dread: the climbers' robust bodies are painted a cheery peach, but they're set against a background of somber grays and greens. His struggling humans are caught in a flat modernist space that is everywhere and nowhere.
Murphy usually makes abstracts, delicately colored geometries painted in lush layers. Lately, he's been experimenting more often with the human figure. For the current show at Davis Dominguez, A Natural Order, which he shares with landscape painter James Cook, Murphy is exhibiting 18 figurative works. Seven of them, like "Skyscraper," are good-sized oils on canvas; 11 are small oil sketches behind glass.
His exhibition has the occasional sweet work—"Waiting" is a tender oil of nude bathers, a mother and her small son wading into sea-green water, their simple figures reminiscent of Matisse's cutouts. But most of Murphy's works are unnerving. A fragment of a worried face appears in "A Face Remembered." "Guardian" is a surreal three-legged, headless beast in orange and gold. In "Raising the Beam," a distorted male nude struggles to hold high a roof beam.
"Barbara" places a mysterious woman in black at the far left edge of a spare gray interior. She's peering sideways at a pair of ominous invading waterfowl breaking through a side door, beaks first.
Elsewhere, in "Be Prepared," a smiling Boy Scout turns sinister. Look at him carefully, and you'll see he's carrying what appears to be a rifle. And you start asking the fearful question: be prepared for what?
Most of Murphy's works are painted in creamy layers, with patches that allow the under layers to show through. The grays of "Barbara," for one, are tempered by shots of a delicious burnt sienna. "Be Prepared" hews closer to Murphy's usual abstract techniques. Murphy has built up the figure of the young scout with small irregular shapes, painted in soft colors—creamy whites, delicate pinks, a little purple, some green. Close-up, the boy is an abstraction, made of nothing but swathes of paint and dancing colors. The scout, for good or for ill, disappears. The piece is lovely to look at but it's served with a side of dread.
On the other side of the gallery, James Cook is showing in-your-face landcapes of the American West, with boldly colored rocks and mountains and trees lined up like blockades at the forefront of his paintings. In Cook's hands, nature is powerful, if not hostile.
His scenes are busy and bristling, with hardly any stretches of negative space, and almost no big restful western skies to balance out the aggressive terrain below.
The largest painting, the oil on linen "Road to Taos—Fertile Ground," is calming and bucolic, with open farm fields laid out in long rectangles, interrupted by tidy red-roofed farmhouses. Even the looming mountain beyond seems benevolent.
More often, his scenes come across as threatening, whether intentional or not. In "Fog – Pinetop #1." white fog billows between yellow-leafed aspen trees. But the intense yellow reads as flames and that showy fog could be smoke. "Autumn – Lower Sabino #2" takes the fire theme further. Here the flaming yellow leavers look like a full-bodied wildfire.
Cook, like Murphy a Tucson painter, goes in hard with his brushes and attacks the fine linen surface with bold lines and splashy bursts of thick paint, his technical energy equal to the all-powerful nature that he depicts. Get up close to any one of these paintings and the landscape disappears, just as Murphy's scout does: all you see is paint, texture, line and color worthy of the abstract expressionists. Those autumnal leaves of Pinetop and Sabino metamorphose into thick zig-zagging strokes of yellow in every shade, from taxicab to ocher to lemon.
Cook has a sideline in industrial landscape and he displays a worthy entry here. The ironically named "Evergreen Study #1" is a large painting of factory by night, with blasts of red clouds and yellow flames bursting against the inky black sky. In the foreground, wastewater pools on the earth, its contaminated waters glowing with toxins and reflecting the lights of the smokestacks. In the foreground, some hardy green grass survives, along with a handful of flowers.
Besides being a vigorous abstraction of light and dark, "Evergreen" is a narrative about energy and industry and pollution, and the costs of living the way we do. But at a time when the EPA has been all but dismantled, "Evergreen" becomes a vision of our future: dirty, dusty and dangerous.