When I arrived at the Blinking Light Gallery in Plainfield this afternoon I immediately knew something was up. There was music leaking out into the street from the riverside storefront, but not the kind of music I had been led to believe would accompany today’s artist reception. I heard harp and recorder where I was expecting the metallic, alternatively-tuned aesthetic of traditional gamelan music.
I soon learned that today’s guest of honor, artist/musician Dennis Murphy, had been hospitalized earlier in the week and was unable to attend today’s event. Without him, there was also to be no gamelan music since his role in the Plainfield Village Gamelan ensemble is pivotal. Murphy was represented instead by a very nice harp/recorder duet and a whole wall of his recent art: pastels, ink drawings, watercolors and photographs.
It’s something of an understatement to call Murphy an American original. It also doesn’ t take into consideration the breadth of his influence, many aspects of which have nothing to do with American culture or traditions at all. Murphy’s very long career has included making his own gamelan instruments, an endeavor which led Lou Harrison to describe Murphy as one of the founders of American gamelan music. Murphy also led a student ensemble in a performance of traditional Javanese music as early as 1967, during his first year teaching at Goddard College. He made shadow puppets (also a Javanese tradition) to accompany the musical performances of what later evolved from the original student group to become the Plainfield Village Gamelan ensemble. And he has developed his own written language described as a “simple alphabetical cypher”, a style that’s visually akin to Japanese brushstroke lettering and was created for the sole purpose of inclusion in his artworks.
The collection of Murphy’s visual art consists of a series of around 40 pieces. It’s been curated under the title of “Less is Enough”, a reference to the stroke Murphy suffered three years ago which significantly diminished his physical ability to produce art, though not his desire and drive to do so. Since that medical setback, Murphy has been concentrating on adjusting to his new limitations and rediscovering what IS now possible with his art. The subject matters range from intimate nude photographs (including a couple of pinhole photography self-portraits, I was happy to note) to colorful rural landscapes and whimsically captioned random objects like Adirondack chairs, coffee (“coughie”) cups, and perennial gardens. The notation beneath a painting of green fencing dryly states: “To their surprise the lattice was made of lettuce.” This is a highly personal and assemblage of works; the product of a profoundly creative mind and means of expression.
I would have enjoyed hearing the gamelan ensemble today, and having a chance to meet Dennis Murphy. But I felt like I got to know him a little anyway despite his absence from the day’s events, through his drawings, pastels, and photos. Best wishes to him for a complete recovery and continued exploration in art. Here’s a video from the Ensemble: