Mystical New Show Depicts Artist’s Beautiful, Startling Narcoleptic Visions
THERE IS A pivotal scene in The Matrix where Morpheus (played by a thoroughly in-shape Laurence Fishburne) prepares the film’s hapless hero (played by a pre-John Wick Keanu Reeves) for his jump into the proverbial rabbit hole by asking him, “Have you ever had a dream . . . that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
That liminal zone between dreaming and waking life is something artist Shayne Murphy knows all too well. Diagnosed in 2019 with narcolepsy, a chronic neurological disorder that involves irregular patterns in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and significant disruptions of the sleep-to-wake cycle, Murphy has chosen to do what many artists living with a potentially debilitating condition do: channel the experience into art. His newest body of work Cataplexy, on view at Anya Tish Gallery Nov. 17-Dec. 30, explores the sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening narcoleptic visions in a new series of colorful oil paintings, meticulous charcoal drawings, and one mysterious, Cornell-like box.
Opera and film sets from the Golden Age of Hollywood are recurring visual motifs in Cataplexy. In Murphy’s charcoal drawing titled “Forest,” stage curtains hang behind the giant trunks and claw-like roots of a claustrophobic cluster of trees. Two paintings, “Chamber for Lunar Eclipse” and “Chamber for Solar Eclipse,” take their inspiration from the German Romantic architect Karl Friedrich Shinkel’s stage sets for the appearance of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. And inside the aforementioned box is a maquette for a stage set, with black curtains draped around a full moon.
All of Murphy’s oil-on-canvas works in Cataplexy, including two surreal seascapes (“Technicolor Tombstone” and “Lime Kiln”), warrants close viewing, but “Giant Deer,” which greets visitors as they enter the gallery, is a tour-de-force. The subject is the (living?) skeleton of a heavily antlered deer, its body based on cave drawings in what is now Southern France that date back over 20,000 years ago, standing like a sentinel atop the mossy floor seen in “The Forest,” now in color, and heralded by two grandly draped, velvety curtains, one grey, the other royal red. In his notes for the show, Murphy describes the deer as “The Keeper” of dream and conscious realms but doesn’t clarify if this creature first made its presence known while he was asleep or fully awake.
Murphy’s previous show at Anya Tish, Ignis Fatuus, included portraits of his wife Casey and their friend Anne Simpson posed as saints and demons from Judeo-Christian mythology as portrayed by artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Five years later, he and Casey are now parents (with another baby on the way!) and the supernatural — be it the miracle of birth, or that antlered, skeletal “Keeper” of dreams that lurks in the woods — continues to maintain its presence in Murphy’s beautiful and disorienting art.