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Loosely based on Raphael's "The Madonna of Francis I" (1518) this piece explores chaos and composition and a family's adulation for the newest addition to their tribe.

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S. Myya Johnson

November 17, 2021

Ah, distorted Raphael. Gorgeous work. The piece that this has been loosely based upon is Raphael’s The Madonna of Francis I (Also found as The Holy Family of Francis I, 1518). It seems to be distorted, inverted, and colored over in colored pencil, oil, and charcoal on paper. There is the child with elongated arms and enlarged hands behind cradled by his mother. Behind the child are two figures embracing each other, one figure with distorted eyes, and one more figure stretching. Finally, behind the mother figure lies another figure equating to the Father Joseph in the original work, but instead of his gaze turned toward the child in the center, it is directed at the viewer.

Now for a brief moment, let’s get biblical, because that’s one of my favorite things to do.  In the original painting, the central chubby baby is Jesus, the baby off to the right is John the Baptist (cousin of Jesus), the woman holding Jesus is most likely Mother Mary. But often times saints liked a little self-insert fan art for themselves. So it is also entirely likely that that chubby baby is Francis I himself, heralding the coming of his rebirth into a life for Jesus Christ, for example.

But in comparison, Birth genuinely fascinates me. First, there is the collage aspect alone. If you look at some of the detail shots of the work, the eyes on the Mother, the jaw of the Father, the enormous hand of the Child: all of these pieces are tacked on and are clear collage work. It’s mesmerizing and confusing. With the endless swirls of color, it’s also chaotic as the coming of a child often is. No matter how much warning Immaculate Conception can give you, it cannot prepare you for this whirlwind of sheer chaos. Isn’t it wonderful?

Truly though, the collage is my favorite aspect about this piece. It makes me want to strip back all of the layers and find that calm underneath. Underneath all of that chaos and confusion, there are moments of peace, of a child taking his first steps.

Second, there is subject matter and execution. Birth and it’s chaotic rhythm reminds me a lot of learning to dance. I don’t have rhythm to save my life, so maybe this only applies to me, but stick with me here. There is one beat, one colored pencil stroke, and you can keep up. Then there are two more beats with oil and cutouts for the collage, and you seem to be doing fine. Now try doing both. You are suddenly tripping over your own two feet. You are on the floor. Your ballet professor asks you to try again. And then I told her I did my best and I—sorry, sorry. Let me try that again.

What I meant to say is that Gregory Malphurs does a brilliant job of containing chaos in a way I have never seen before. From the color palette to the way he has such confidence in his lines to his print cutout choices. The absolutely insane nature of bringing forth a child that is essentially the Son of God and knowing that that chubby baby holds divinity in his humongous palms is just so perfectly executed.

Third, there are the figures themselves. The faces amidst all of the embracing leer at us. The Father won’t look away, eyes turned and pressed against the glass in an accusatory tone, almost as if he is saying, “Stay away from my family, thank you very much.” The face hidden above the Child’s halo has the most distorted face of all of them, I think. The eyes are uneven. The face is mask-like with two contrasting colors. The expression itself is a lot to bear. What do they want? It is as if, in the original painting, those who are not preoccupied with another person or object were transformed into paying attention to the viewer, to you. They’re protective. It’s unnerving. I love it.

In its entirety, Birth is a story I don’t think I will ever truly understand. And that’s complete okay with me. This piece, to me, reads more about the raising of a prodigal child, and how that child is no different than any other child. It’s just as nerve-wracking, hair-pulling, and overall distressing to have a child at all. 

Final verdict, Gregory Malphurs seems to have a way with colored pencils. His line work is pretty solid, and his confidence shows in collage as well as in his subject matter. Birth is a wild ride from start to finish, if you choose to see a finish line at all. It’s really a wonderful piece, and I fully recommend it be hung in a gallery or on the wall behind someone’s new couch. 

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Gregory Malphurs
Work on Paper - Framed
Oil, Charcoal, Colored Pencil
22.00 inches wide
30.00 inches tall
0.00 inches deep
7.00 lbs