What is empirical may not be felt. What is felt might not be seen. What is seen might not be known. And all of this forms the basis of both faith and doubt. The drama of memory is built on the porosity of perception. In the landscape this is compounded by the fact that the light is moving, the peripheral is sensed (but remains unwitnessed) and, inevitably, the ‘truth’ of the view is going to change. To acknowledge the impossible and the simultaneous, the fragile and the archaic, is to paint a modern landscape.
Evolution in the paintings of Idris Murphy is slow. Even a fleeting glance will note the signposts he has made his own: the solitary swollen tree, the brilliant counterintuitive colour, land-masses restlessly bursting at the seams of the square. Through the colour alone, you can recognise his griffe at several paces. But the changes that occur within his work, if quiet, are important.
For some years colour in the hands of this painter was verdant, almost humid in sensuality and ripely inviting. His vision of the centre and the desert was a startling Medina, pouring water on the wound of the ‘dead heart’ and all that dry red earth. Colour, re-invented in his spectrum, explained all the mutations of weather and mass and cloud with a raw and brisk hand. Laying it down and moving into it’s core, his palette rarely seemed perplexed. Instead there was a conversation occurring within its own lexicon and the language was bold. Untethered from the burden of light source, Murphy cleaved Australian landscape away from its perpetual obedience to tonal humility. In fact he heaved us out of the mud once and for all.
To me, it was like his painting was raining back into the well and breaking the drought. When he was younger and just back from London, other Sydney artists asked him why, why on earth, he wanted to paint the Australian landscape at all. “Busy mining the last coal face of late American Modernism they said to me ‘mate, there is NOTHING out there.” Such banal provocations were well timed. Perhaps intuiting that there was no greater abstract challenge than an uncharted (and underestimated) landmass, Murphy shed the mannered notes of his Eurocentric training and apprenticed into the bush. Akin to Francis walking out of Assisi, he shed pictorial conventions like unwanted robes. The horizon line was pushed up and out, shadow was abutted to its limnal limit, detail was evinced, illusion was flattened and foliage became as direct as a fingerprint.
The raw quality he invented was not mining the scene but cutting into painting itself, cleaving away the dead wood of metaphor, symbolism, and colonial anguish. Looking into the guts of these paintings I see rage inside the tranquillity, an impatient urge to scrape away the weight of habit and interrogate the vernacular. That impulse arrives in the new works with subtle inference. In these paintings, darkness shows its face and the touch, though always freshly nuanced, is rougher. Some works slide across aluminium instead of linen. Others use black as a colour rather than a tone.
He also introduces the industrial mineral sheen of metallic paints. The tension between a work being pictorially resolved and tightly replete or more vulnerable and uncertain is sustained in many of these paintings. Unlike the works where the landscape holds all, here are images that reveal the battle of process and the ‘talk’ inside their making. They are allowed to tremble. On the studio wall there are shards of ripped paper and canvas. Moving from one frame to another Murphy cuts into the square with these fragments or takes a panel and simply inverts it. Some of the paintings consist of parts and they are moving parts. “The movement of four panels, creates a fifth entity” he explains simply “and that entity is the unknown force outside the discipline of the square and the quadrant. It is the unstable element that energises and questions the whole.” Compositionally, these are restless inventions. This finds full flower in a work like “Momentary Reflections” (Acrylic on aluminium and collage, 2017). Inside the magnetic diagonal pull of the painting it seems that landforms, time and light are compounding. As if a seismic volcanic energy was brewing beneath flat paint.
If Idris Murphy’s first project was to eliminate the limits of a “view” and to shatter the soothing decorative impulse, his second movement expands the polemic into harder reaches. Here is a skeleton tree reduced to a bleached harrowed line. Here is a strange shade of green not native to a dry interior. Or, a tense pink sky bursting with rain that won’t fall. Revelation and mute ambivalence are sharing the same habitat. Very beautiful things push into the terrain of very plain things. And it contributes to a whole that has been building over decades. Brewing. Breaking down. Re-growing like a stubborn plant. These are landscapes that refute belief yet invite return. If faith has the power to silence doubt, even for a few moments, then painting still stands as a portal. Earth is assailed but obdurate. It is a still a place where the lovers rise up and the mountains touch the ground.
Anna Johnson, October, 2017