A Conversation With Michael Murphy, Whose “Perceptual Art” Must Be Seen to Be Believed

The renowned artist created a new piece for Watches and Wonders Shanghai in collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre

April 21, 2021 10:18 am
A Conversation With Michael Murphy, Whose “Perceptual Art” Must Be Seen to Be Believed

American sculptor Michael Murphy is a pioneer in a movement commonly referred to as “perceptual art,” a moniker that might sound strange to the uninitiated — after all, isn’t all art an experience in perception? One look at Murphy’s mind-bending 3D installations, however, and the designation immediately becomes clear: this is art meant to challenge perception in both an immediate physical sense as well as a philosophical one, a sensory experience influenced by the viewer’s physical position in the space as it relates to the artwork.

Murphy’s technique involves suspending a series of objects with pinpoint precision in a way that their collective positioning creates a single, coherent image (or, in certain cases, multiple images) for a viewer standing in a certain place. Viewing one of Murphy’s works is, for lack of a more nuanced description, a uniquely trippy experience, and one which has made Murphy one of the more celebrated and sought-after artists in the world. In addition to a host of renowned personal pieces tackling societal issues, Murphy has also created works in partnership with everyone from Fox Sports to Toyota to the Atlanta Hawks, whose State Farm Arena boasts a large-scale 3D installation by Murphy of the team’s iconic logo.

Murphy’s latest project, entitled Spacetime, is a collaboration with Swiss luxury watchmakers Jaeger-LeCoultre that just debuted at the Shanghai leg of luxury timepiece show Watches and Wonders. A recreation of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Tribute Nonantième, the piece boasts 69 suspended components that align to create a physical manifestation of the watch’s internal mechanics.

“My Reverso design explodes into an array of parts that tell a story about the watch and how it works,” explains Murphy. “I dissected it into all of its working components and composed them in a way that creates two different photographic illusions, one renders the front of the watch and one the reverse.”

We sat down (virtually) with Murphy to further discuss his artistic process, the inspiration for his work and where he sees his unique style headed in the future.

InsideHook: How did you arrive at this type of perceptual art as your main focus? Did you set out to create a style that inherently required more participation from the viewer, particularly participation in the actual space in which the art resides?

Michael Murphy: I arrived at perceptual art as my main focus of my practice through many years of experimentation. I didn’t decide that I was going to make “perceptual art.” I just made the artwork that I wanted to make. And then through the process of trying to figure out what it was I was doing and what it should refer to, I arrived at “perceptual art” because the emphasis of my work is largely on the viewer’s perception. After many years of creating the artwork that I create, I started to realize that what I was trying to make wasn’t just an object or an image, but I was trying to create experiences that viewers would have. The experience that the viewer has is essentially the finished product.

What was your first piece of art like this? 

The first artwork ever created was very similar to the [Jaeger-LeCoultre] Reverso. It was a multi-directional illusion sculpture. This was created back in the ’90s. I was learning how to model clay and cast cement. So I had modeled in clay, a sculpture that was representational of a woman from one side and a man from the other. It was pretty bad, really. But of course, my mother had saved it.

How has your style evolved over time?

My style has evolved over time in a way that reflects the technology that I have available to use as tools. As technology progresses, my work has changed and become more sophisticated, I hope, and definitely more complex.

Obviously every piece is different, but is there a ballpark amount of time that you know you’ll need to dedicate to each?

Yes, every piece is different, and it’s difficult for me to tell how much time I’m going to need to create a specific work of art. Oftentimes, when I create one work of art, there are 30 or 40 different models that are created in trying to figure out what the correct solution to the problem is. Through making all these models, I typically land on one that I like and it usually takes a couple of weeks to realize after that.

BLM – On view at Canvas Bowery, NYC

Speaking broadly re: your process, what does it look like from soup to nuts?

My process typically begins with an idea or a concept of some information that I want to communicate or a specific technical challenge that I want to try to accomplish. I basically meditate on that idea for a while and imagine in my mind what the artwork could look like. I typically will build the entire artwork out just in my head so that I know exactly what it’s going to look like and exactly where everything is going to go. And through this process, I can typically understand what the experience is going to be like for the viewer.

After I meditate on that for a while and kind of do that fabrication in my head, I then move to the computer and I’ll create flat graphics in some graphic editing software, then move into 3D from there and fabricate the piece on the computer to get it looking exactly right. And then there’s spreadsheets, CAD drawings and things like that. They get extracted from the 3D models. Sometimes we fabricate the pieces in my studio, and then a lot of times we have other fabricators in various locations around the world fabricate specific components of the artwork.

You said that coming up with a great idea is the most challenging part of your work — are there methods you utilize to help the process of inspiration?

Yes, I had mentioned that coming up with the idea is often the most challenging part of the work. The way that I come up with the ideas for my work is, if I’m working with a client, I try to understand what the client’s goals and objectives are. If it’s a personal piece, I try to understand what my goals and objectives are for the project. What I typically do is try to simplify the entire project down to what I refer to as elevator talk, one sentence to describe what the artwork is. For example, the pieces that have two illusions, can that artwork be described with just two words? If I can do that, I know then it’s not too populated with too many different ideas. It’s not convoluted and too busy.

So if I can simplify the description of the artwork down to a limited, select set of words, then I think I’m finding clarity. Often when I come up with the artwork, I will write down what the description of that artwork is, and then I’ll turn to a search engine and search the web to see if there’s something else that exists that’s just like it. This is one of the ways that I try to ensure originality, and I try to make sure I’m not just pulling from my subconscious from some other artwork that I’ve seen. Oftentimes I’ll find that someone else has created exactly what I was thinking of. If they haven’t, then it’s a clear for takeoff.

AIR – Mulidirectional illusion sculpture for the Sneakertopia pop-up event in Los Angeles, CA, 2019

A watch seems like kind of an ideal subject for your art, being that both are made up of many tiny moving parts working in concert with one another to create a larger functional whole — was that something you were conscious of with this project?

I do feel like a watch is an ideal subject for my art. Both because watches and my work are made up of tiny little parts, there’s a great deal of detail. I was conscious of this when working on this project. Aside from that, I’ve always wanted to make a time piece. Artworks are referred to as pieces and watches are also referred to as pieces. So for me, it was a fun play on words to create a “timepiece.”

But what’s more than that is my art has always had a relationship to time. When a viewer interacts with one of my artworks, you can’t just look at a photograph of one of my artworks and understand how it functions and what it does, because a photograph doesn’t have time. The viewer needs to either view my artwork through video, which occurs on a timeline, or actually walk around the artwork. And that’s this element of time that’s essential to my work. And I’ve always been aware of this. I’ve always thought of my artworks as animations. When a viewer moves around the artwork, it animates the artwork and makes it change and transform.

You’ve said that there’s a narrative element to your work, a larger dialogue between the individual pieces. What story do you think this work in particular is telling?

Yes, a number of my artworks do create a narrative in the way that they’re created. The narrative is a result of this dialogue between all the individual pieces. And this Reverso sculpture tells a story about a harmony of parts, essentially. All the parts in the watch, everything is essential. Every component of the watch has its own specific function. The entire watch can’t exist without all of those parts. Every single part of the watch is incredibly important. And that’s also how the artwork is — you can’t take any of the pieces out of the artwork. It’ll fail, it’ll stop functioning, it’ll stop doing what it does. And that’s the narrative that I’m hoping that this harmony of parts creates.

Aside from this one, any favorite pieces over the years that you’re particularly proud of?

This sculpture is my favorite sculpture that I have ever created. But aside from this one, is there one that I’m particularly proud of? Yeah, I’m quite proud of a number of our accomplishments, quite proud of a number of the artworks that we’ve created. In particular, The Immigrant, which is a portrait of my wife, who is an immigrant. That piece is … well, I think it’s absolutely incredible. I think it captures the essence of my wife. When you finally see the illusion, there’s all of these little particles that are floating in the air and all of a sudden they have personality and they’re looking right at you. Aside from that, the piece was intended to create a note of positivity in the conversation around immigrants in the United States. To celebrate the immigrants in the United States and point out how valuable and important they are to our culture. So I’m quite proud of that piece and it has a really great message that I can stand behind.

The Immigrant – A tribute to immigrants, 2019

How do you see your style changing in the future — that is to say, what’s next in terms of your artistic evolution?

I see my style changing in the future kind of in tandem with technology. As technology progresses, my work has been evolving. I use a lot of technology in my work. I try to use every tool that I can get my hands on, that I have at my disposal, to make new and interesting things. I consider myself an inventor, I have a number of techniques that I have invented. I intend to continue down that path and continue to invent new ways of making images and challenging viewers. Hopefully, I will mature intellectually as well, and the artwork will improve in that capacity.

Most of my artworks are smaller portions of larger ideas. Some of my artworks that are in black and white, for example, they’re an example of me figuring out how to do certain techniques. And most of the black and white ones, the original idea was for a color version, but in order to keep things simple, I have taken out the color and I’m just working with black and white so that I can focus on the more challenging aspect of the project. So in time, all of these ideas will hopefully evolve and mature and become much better than what they are currently.

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