HOW to review an artist whose catalogue note concludes: "Be suspicious of words written about paintings"? However, John Philip Murray's is serious, interesting work, so I will risk writing about it, in order to spread the news. But by all means, be suspicious of words, and go to the gallery to see for yourself.
Ever since a visit to Tunisia in 1995, Murray has been using a mosaic format exploring the resonance of small blocks of colour set against a background of pale ochres. His current show at the Vangard Gallery, Cork, (until November 17), Aspiration, consists entirely of painted variations on the mosaic theme.
For the first time, Murray has used a large scale to explore his mosaic format. The four biggest works, the Aspiration series, all in oil on linen, measure 152cm by 122cm each. Only eight works, two of them small pastels, are shown in the large main gallery, leaving plenty of white space around the paintings, allowing each of these complex works to occupy a considerable area of wall. Smaller works are shown in an adjoining room.
Aspiration: Figure and Border is a study of one corner of an ancient, worn floor. One series of squares explores the textures of the worn tiles in pale shades of terracotta. In contrast, the border, running horizontally parallel to the top of the painting, and vertically parallel to the right hand side, contains strong, deeply saturated purples and blues, meeting in a square of perfect deep red.
The title of Aspiration: Four Vanished Faces, an unusual asymmetric work, alerts the viewer to the artist's practice of revealing the outline of a human head within some of the heavily worked surfaces of the pale terracotta tiles. The mosaics were made by anonymous hands, many years ago, and trodden by anonymous people over the years contributing to their worn surface. The artist seems to suggest that these figures have a right to assert their presence.
So much work has been done on each tile of the larger mosaics that it is almost like looking at a multiple work of art. Among the smaller works, Veiled Spirit, in oil on linen stands out for its interesting more lightly painted texture, counterbal-anced by a more heavily painted central stripe.
The simplest works are the Mosaic Grid series in oil on board, long narrow paintings alternating solid colour and tones of cream.
John Philip Murray achieves the best of both worlds in that these paintings, while overtly figurative, work in the same way as many abstracts. The viewer is attracted by their play of pattern and colour, and the harmonies of their structure. They reward formal consideration, while the more romantically inclined can contemplate the strong Mediterranean sunlight on age old stone. The choice, as the artist points out in his note, is up to the viewer.