I & Thou
2009 Survey 1986-2008 Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre August 22 - October 4, 2009

Catalogue Essay: Missives from the Outdoors: The Art of Idris Murphy

Glenn Barkley

So if painting... were dead, and it’s not of course – though to some extent in hiding as in other black periods of history – then it would be a splendid, enviable task of artists to remake it, from all the points where it left off.

Ken Whisson

I’m not interested in negotiating my way around Indigenous painting. I think it is going to be a problem – can the Western tradition sustain a view of the world? I mean, Peter Fuller used to talk about this when he came to Australia very briefly; he saw in Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan the potential for the ‘last great hurrah’ of the Northern Romantic tradition and I think there’s a lot of truth in what he said. I think it’s going to be a problem – it’s not a problem for me – I’m just lapping it up! Of course I’m not Indigenous but I love the idea of this great wonderful European tradition, which I belong to, fusing with Indigenous art –happening right under my nose, in my lifetime! And I can see that as a whole new sort of language base for contemporary painting. 

Idris Murphy

The art of Idris Murphy provides a road map for the state of landscape painting during a tumultuous period for the genre in Australian art. Landscape lies at the heart of painting in this country. It has driven the visual project and despite the ups and downs of painting’s profile it remains resolute.

Murphy’s work, his career trajectory and its placement and points of influence, are exemplar of a type of painting condition post the emergence of Aboriginal painting. Murphy began his career in the early 1970s at the point of painting’s demise. Painting’s influence and cachet were at their lowest ebb. Conceptualism and the post-modern program was gathering its momentum, leaving painting in its wake as a so-called ‘dead’ art form. It is also at this point that the Papunya Tula painting movement began, initiating change in the course of Australian art and Australian painting’s history.

Consideration of painting in the wake of the rise of Aboriginal art, for non-Indigenous practitioners, can only mean moving forward with a solid understanding and grasp of the potentiality that Indigenous art offers. Painting must find a place within the wider philosophical and conceptual framework offered up by conceptualism that is constructed within a rubric of scepticism, irony and strategy.

All are terms which, although questioning of painting’s role, pay homage to its power and relevance.  

Murphy’s work has many touchstones that are wide-ranging, from the spiritual to the aesthetic. Far from exhausted, it is in fact, reinvigorated. The landscape, now seen through a completely different set of parameters than when Murphy began, still offers a way for an artist to give us a new way of seeing the world.

Murphy’s awareness of painting’s histories, of the crisis in the European way of viewing the world, is one of multiple streams driving his work. It is about his engagement as an artist from a European background dealing with the problems of the painter as somehow being outside of the landscape.

In general terms, if an Indigenous artist painting his or her country is offering up an internalised connection with the landscape then the European perspective, of being outside the landscape, is the reverse model.

Murphy is working somewhere between these two ideas, or trying to. It is the struggle of trying to find ‘space’ within which to work that makes it interesting and worth pursuing. Importantly Murphy’s practice still uses some of the dominant tropes of the European tradition. It is for the most part easel sized. It is studio based, n that Murphy who has consistently worked in plein air, and produces finished work in that way, still brings back missives from the outdoors that are developed into larger more complete works. Murphy engages with a notion of the studio as being an alchemical space where ideas and field notes are magically transformed. Replicating poetry, the distillation of experience is edited down into a more succinct form.

Murphy, in dealing with the same abstract painting processes of push and pull, across and back, is toying not just with the ‘look’ of painting but also with ideas.

For each painter finally there is one direction and this should become apparent in the painter’s work. In the paintings of Colin McCahon we see the inner world writ large against the expanse of the natural one. McCahon’s inner dramas are incorporated into the drama of the New Zealand landscape. Questions of faith and spirituality are combined with the physical act of painting and looking – of a brush loaded with pigment scraping across the surface, painting’s physicality and its place as a thing in the world.

McCahon’s work, like indigenous painting, is a source of reflection and inspiration for Murphy. McCahon reclaimed the power of the spirit and conjured it into contemporary painting in a way that very few others have. And although Murphy is an Australian artist, and McCahon undeniably a New Zealand one, McCahon’s endeavor reinvigorated painting in much the same way that Indigenous art has. McCahon is now brought into the history of Australian art- as Australasian no less.

The idea of ‘doubt’ as in McCahon, and no less in Murphy, is an interesting idea to consider. Doubt is not just a religious doubt, in trying to draw out some sense of the significance of creation and spirituality of creation and spirituality through painting, but also the doubt in painting’s need to transcend its simple means. In still believing in painting’s ability to let us see the world anew. In a world which is cluttered by the visual, painting is always in crisis, against the world, and fighting against itself.

Words like ‘spirituality’, ‘inspiration’ and ‘reflection’ sit on the page like lumpen clichés.  Murphy wants us to look at them again. Why do we see them this way? Where is the doubt in us viewing the world through these terms? Doubt is not just spiritual; it is the doubt within ourselves to respond to artwork in a purely visceral and aesthetic way. It is the doubt that makes us also distrust the pleasure in viewing painting; of being witness to its transformations and shifts; being too personal in a world where the personal has become public; where everything is studies and measured, at least in a European sense; to be suspicious of the transcendent and instead be cynical and ironic.

In 2008 I attended the opening of Murphy’s show at King Street Gallery on William. I was late and stranded between the end of the show and thinking about having dinner. Randi Linnegar, co-director at King Street Gallery on William, turned the lights off and the show became transformed. Paintings glowed out of the dark, forms moved and changed, they became reanimated in different ways that were imperceptible under the gallery lights. Murphy too became re-animated as if seeing the paintings afresh. It was an interesting experiment in the way lights alter how we look at and respond to paintings physicality.

Murphy understands the act of painting as being a drama. The drama of the landscape as seen through a car window. The drama of the torn edge of a piece of paper. The play between the heavy hand and a light touch. The drama of matt against gloss – of an iridescent patch of paint up against the dead hand of a matt surface.

Murphy gives us a world within worlds that only painting can give. It is driven, moving, conceptual and full of doubt. It is beyond words. It is about looking, thinking and making. About action. It is the landscape and painting transcendent – it is the best that he can do and it is all that we can ask.