Idris Murphy: Perfect Harmony

Trent Walter
Australian Art Review
11th January 2011

The first time he visited Mutawintji in western New South Wales, Idris Murphy was profoundly affected. Alone in the desert landscape, Murphy "could hear Aboriginal kids diving in the water and laughing and carrying on". The eerie sensation of another presence in the seemingly empty landscape was a revelation for Murphy and he has continued to explore landscape through this kind of subjective perception since. "I'm trying to make images that reflect my world view," he says. It is a view he feels is inadequately expressed by words, like his Mutawintji experience, and one he instead attempts to articulate in his multifarious and often beautiful paintings of landscape. Hovering between figuration and abstraction, Murphy's paintings depict this unique perspective while having a firm basis in a broader picture-making tradition. The son of a forest officer, Murphy spent much time in his early life in the bush. It was a formative experience. After completing a diploma in painting at the National Art School, Sydney, he was awarded a travelling scholarship that saw him taking in the great paintings of the European tradition, while also completing further studies at the Winchester College of Art. Though not tackling the landscape genre during this period, Murphy made some key realisations. "When I realised that realism was basically, as Picasso said, a lie, that caused a whole lot of problems!"

Returning to Australia in 1980, Murphy made a decision to pursue landscape exclusively. In the works of Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan, Murphy saw new possibilities. Williams was "someone who [was] not the sort of corny Australian landscape [painter] that I had in my head. Whether that was true or not. But he was someone who understood Cézanne, who understood cubism ... the language [of it]. Who used a formal matrix to make a new way of seeing the landscape."

He saw another counterpoint to the European landscape tradition in the emergence of Indigenous painting, stemming from Papunya Tula. It presented a way of painting that was not restricted to an objective view of perspective, light and colour. Glenn Barkley writes in Murphy's survey exhibition catalogue, I & Thou: "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." He continues, "Murphy is working somewhere between these two ideas."

Looking about Murphy's Caringbah studio south of Sydney, one can see that his practice is an immersive one. Amongst the works in progress on easels, the stacked smaller boards, brushes and paints are multiple shelves of books. In between the various monographs and histories are books of essays by John Berger, Martin Buber and George Steiner. Murphy finds echoes of his quest in these writers. Berger's term of "aesthetic emotion" (an emotion of the head and the heart) comes some way to articulating Murphy's ethos. Indeed he refers to Steiner's idea of "real presence" - "something else outside of you that you didn't make or didn't bring into being" - to relate his experience of "otherness" in Mutawintji.

In his recent exhibition Across the Board - Ten Years of Painting at Bett Gallery, Hobart, the combination of these influences, what Murphy would call "the amalgam", was palpable. The show was an alchemical distillation of experience: the works lyrical in brushstroke and palette.

In the studio, Murphy refers to himself as an "impatient" painter. Indeed, he has a tendency to paint and then scrape the image off and will repeat the process until the work achieves a state of completion, or until the paint builds to a thickness that makes its continuance untenable. At this point he will sand back the image and start over. Philosophically, it becomes what Murphy might refer to as a layering or an under-painting of memory.

Alongside his philosophical aims, Murphy allows the process of painting to play a role, too. More recently, he "[relies] on the work presenting [him] the image more and more". This is not to say that he arrives at a completed picture by chance and good fortune alone, rather that he is open to opportunities suggested through process when painting. In this approach, even the grain of the timber boards can be suggestive of form. Painting on board also allows him to work physically into the painting's surface as well as offering a practical robustness.

Murphy explains, "Often one makes things so that one will get stuck ... one makes hurdles for oneself to allow things to happen." The nearly completed diptych on his studio easel is evidence of this. Murphy refers to the space where the two boards meet as the "fifth edge" of the painting. The physical division creates tension between form and colour, which Murphy clearly relishes, as he does the transformation of a picture of a depiction of trees at Mutawintji into a south coast view coming up from Tathra, New South Wales.

Murphy sees a direct relationship between paintings made in the studio and those made in the landscape. While he admits that the larger studio works probably have a more formal structure, they are built with a memory imbued by experience in the landscape. The balance of these elements is of paramount importance to him. "If [the paintings] have no meaning outside [the formal aesthetic] then there is no point." He continues, "You've got to have a philosophical basis for deciding if this picture is true for how you see the world otherwise you are going round in circles and it is hit and miss."

While he has an interest in painting the mountainous landscapes of China and myriad colours of India, it is the Australian landscape that Murphy remains enthralled by. Reflecting his excitement at the continued possibilities offered to painting by the Australian landscape, and perhaps in reference to the significance of his broader influences, Murphy ruminates, "I think I've got enough here to last me a lifetime." It is difficult to disagree.