A long scroll covered with a grid of small squares, triangles and numbers stretches across Tugboat Gallery, a piece from Bri Murphy that appears to be a geometric abstraction exploring pattern.
That, however, isn’t the true nature of the piece. Its origin is revealed in a small page taken from an old psychiatric guide for nurses. Titled “Case Study Artifact” by Murphy, the page documents nurses’ observations of psychiatric patients' behavior, charted in neat rows.
Taking that as inspiration, Murphy charted her own behavior for a year, putting the triangles, squares and numbers on the scroll to document her life with bipolar disorder.
“This is, by far, the most personal I’ve allowed my work to get,” Murphy said. “I’ve been dealing with bipolar disorder my whole adult life. I’ve never told anyone about it. ... But it’s my reality and through my artwork I’ve explored that.”
That exploration makes up “Case Study: Bimolar,” a multi-medium accumulation of work done by Murphy over several years.
The first documentation was done with a video camera, filming herself taking her prescriptions for six months, then sped up in the editing to present rapidly changing views of Murphy -- and occasionally her cat -- as she swallows the pills with water and, at least once, a beer -- “I don’t think my psychiatrist would like that,” she said.
Across the room from the video is a shelf covered with rows of pill bottles, called “27 Months of Sanity, Contained."
“This is what kept me level for four months,” Murphy said. “It’s not even really a work, it’s an object.”
Perhaps not. The bottles, without question, are found objects. But arranged in rows, they become an exercise in repetition that is echoed by “Tiny Dreams,” a similarly arranged set of small vials that contain gold-covered porcelain casts of Murphy’s wisdom teeth -- a piece that is certainly an art work.
The real teeth from which the porcelain versions were cast are found in a pill bottle in another piece, a “curiosity box” titled “Selbsportat Kunstkammer.” It also includes a collection of objects, from a plaster cast of Murphy’s hand holding a tool that was used on her teeth by her dentist to tiny vials of her blood and pills.
Collected over three years and assembled for the first time for the exhibition, the cabinet harkens to Germany, the homeland of Murphy’s stepfather, but it connects just as strongly to the boxes of Joseph Cornell.
Those connections with her many influences -- Cornell, Marcel Duchamp and dozens of contemporary video makers -- lift Murphy’s work out of personal documentation and into the realm of art.
That is, they become visually gripping objects that reflect not only Murphy’s daily reality, but more universal notions of the mundane repetitions of life and the revealing of long-held secrets.
The exhibition is also connected to Murphy’s “Crowns and Nitrous Oxide,” her 2015 Spatium exhibition that contained gold-plated porcelain teeth, porcelain models of her brain, drawings of hundreds of tiny teeth and images taken from her MRIs.
In “Case Study: Bimolar,” the MRI turns up in a video of Murphy cutting up her pills. The porcelain brain comes back, wearing a stethoscope and plugged with EEG electrodes in “Monitor,” and the drawings of teeth are repeated in the six-piece “Bimolar Study” series.
The MRI, brain and teeth return in the exhibition’s final room as well. The new work there, a series called “Bimolar X-rays” takes small X-ray images of her teeth, transfers them to metal and hangs them on wall with the same bib clips used in dentists’ offices.
While Murphy, who is the gallery director at the Lux Center for the Arts, was concerned about publicly disclosing that she is bipolar, she decided that she’d put out the work that she had been doing for years and not worry about the consequences.
“It feels cathartic,” Murphy said. “I’ve been sitting on some of this for years.”
Art rarely gets as personal as Murphy’s revelations in “Case Study: Bimolar.” But the measure of its strength is found as it goes beyond autobiography to force the viewer to confront the mundane, repetitious and secretiveness of their own lives.