Artist Eric Murphy explores hate, hope in riveting 'Jim Crow Must Go'

Andy Downing
Paintings in Eric Murphy's "Jim Crow Must Go" exhibit at 400 West Rich

American iconography appears in a number of paintings on display in “Jim Crow Must Go,” a new exhibit from artist Eric Murphy thatopens at 400 West Rich on Friday, Feb. 12. There are representations of the American flag, bald eagles, Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty throughout, interspersed with jarring images of lynchings, white-robed Ku Klux Klan members and Black men and children killed by white violence, including Emmett Till. 

For Murphy, who was raised in a military family and served in the Air Force Reserve Command, these patriotic symbols still have deep meaning, but they speak more to the possibilities of America than its current reality. “I have a great respect for the symbols, but I know they’re simply ideals. They’re destinations to get to,” Murphy said recently at 400 West Rich. “When you say, ‘All of us are free, and all of us are this,’ well, we know that’s not true. I’m just doing a little bit of critiquing on my country.

"We’re great, but we’re not capital ‘G’ great.”

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Witness one triptych depicting Uncle Sam and a Klansman (serving as a stand-in for the larger issue of white supremacy). In the first painting, the two figures make eye contact, symbolizing the racist policies that shaped America’s founding. In the second image, the two lock in a still-going embrace. In the third, which points to a hoped-for future, Uncle Sam bids adieu to the robed figure, finally setting off on a more equitable path.

Elsewhere in the gallery space, works wrestle with everything from police violence against Black citizens to the power of protest and who is allowed to exercise it freely. In one painting, a police officer stalks a Black lives matter protester. In a second set directly beside it, the BLM protester is replaced with a man carrying a Confederate flag, and the officer by a crucified figure.

While some of the works in the show date back years  in particular the found-object sculptures, which are both more cryptic and more personal than the comparatively political paintings included here  others have emerged in the months since the arrival of the coronavirus, a development that has shifted Murphy’s approach to art along with virtually every other aspect of our society. 

“It has changed, because I’ve taken the gloves off, so to speak, and I’m reaching out to people and not trying to filter it anymore,” Murphy said, directing my attention to a painting that explicitly traced a line from slavery and Jim Crow to the modern era of for-profit prisons. “I’ve struggled with that in the past because I don’t want to offend anybody, but at the same token, if it’s what I feel is the truth then it has to go out. Period.”

At times, these truths can be ugly, particularly in a pair of paintings depicting lynchings, which Murphy described as difficult to paint, executable only by focusing in on the granular elements  the tone in a leg muscle, the proportions of a torso, the brush strokes on a cheek  rather than taking in the image on the whole. “So I’m working on the stomach or arm, and I’m not thinking about this thing around his neck every moment I’m painting,” Murphy said, pointing to a taught, ugly stretch of rope. “But at some point it does hurt, because when I picked this to paint, I used this [reference] book that was all about lynchings, and it was terrible, just page after page of lynchings, where you’d have folks posing next to [the bodies] like they were proud. And people would take trophies away. They’d take thumbs away, fingers, and put them up in grocery store windows. … And it’s so disgraceful that our nation allowed it, and celebrated it.”

Aspects of “Jim Crow Must Go” are intended to pull back this veneer, making visitors question what parts of the country’s history we choose to recall, and how those moments are memorialized. 

Murphy, who grew up in Chicago, said he first became aware of the concept of race around the age of 5, when he realized he was the only Black student in his kindergarten class. “So race was a thing, but it was something my dad always tried to steer me away from using as a way to maneuver this life, or as a way to judge people,” he said. “But at the same time, he was born in Mississippi, so he saw the water fountains that said ‘whites’ and ‘coloreds.’ … So there were stories he would tell, and a frankness he would talk about this country with.”

While Murphy didn’t grow up in an artistic family, he said he was encouraged to create from an early age. The artist recalled getting a Jon Gnagy “Learn to Draw” kit at age 5, and by third grade teachers were allowing him to stay in the classroom and draw birds during recess. Gradually, Murphy progressed from drawing animals to human figures and faces, embracing art as a means of exploring both himself and his surroundings. The artist's studio at 400 West Rich is packed with these accumulated explorations, from invented comic book characters and portraits of politicians (Barack Obama and Donald Trump) to an expressive, lovingly rendered oil painting of Murphy's father.

“There are just so many subjects to speak on,” Murphy said, gesturing at the canvases leaning in thick stacks against the walls. “For me, I’m still searching. That’s why there’s that little sign outside the door that says, ‘He’s still searching for that expressive voice.’ And that’s how I feel. There’s still a lot more for me to say.”

Paintings in Eric Murphy's "Jim Crow Must Go" exhibit at 400 West Rich