John Philip Murray in his studio, 2001

John Philip Murray

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About my work


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Notes on my paintings and drawings since 1986.

From 1986 until 1991, the central image in my work was the tree. For me, it fulfilled many different roles: As a discipline, I used to draw particular trees accurately, from life. Later, in the studio, I used these working drawings as the basis for larger works, in various media. The larger works, while based on the drawings, explored themes that often set out to make parallels with human conditions, isolation, AIDS, new life, hope, destruction, oppression, and so on.

1990, I worked directly onto prepared panels, out of doors. I drew with charcoal, graphite, and inks, on the raw panels. These were later sprayed with lacquer. The work was all about light, shadow, and the relationship (physical distance) between the trees.

1991, With the onset of the Gulf War, and the impending birth of our son, a change in direction happened. While looking for a symbol for conflict and paradox, I remembered the area about six miles from where I now live, called The Gearagh. When we first moved to Lissardagh in 1986, this landscape struck me as being different from any other that I had known. There were tracts of water with tree stumps protruding eerily through. This area had been flooded by the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) when making a hydroelectric dam in the 1950’s. Long before that, though, it had been alluvial forest. There were islands, dotted through the marshes and rivers. These were teeming with wildlife, and were natural hideouts for people who lived on the margins. Most of this was unknown by me when I started. I was only interested in how the visual imagery could be used by me. The healthy trees growing on the land contrasted with the stark, blackened shapes sticking out against water and sky, etc. In the new work, I included images of a healthy baby and contrasted these with some of the pictures of emaciated children, recently emerging, from the war zone. The fires of war on the horizon mocked the similar arabesques of forest against the sky, on the other side of the picture, and so on. As the work progressed, all but the stylised lake shape fell away, and I was left with pictures wholly about colour. My manner of work changed also. No longer did I start with detailed working drawings, the only two drawings that I made actually out in the Gearagh happened midway thorough the series. In reality, I was only using these drawings to affirm what I was already doing, rather than, (as in my previous working methods), as the starting point for the studio-based work. In this series, drawing, for the first time was almost completely absent from the images in the paintings.

1992-93, I linked shapes derived from lakes and mountains, with music, sound and silence. I returned to drawing, but I also used information gathered by as little as a glimpse of a landscape, rather than the more intense, long-duration studies formerly used.

1993-94, Towards the end of 1993, Mícheál Fanning, a poet from Dingle, dedicated a poem (Demiurge) to me. I made a series of studies, investigating the theme of the poem, and generally getting a feel of a different modus operandi. In mid-July 1994 I spent some time at the artists’ retreat at Cill Rialaig, where I carried out a series of 12 medium-sized drawings, in charcoal as a response to the poem. The first six were abstracted, stony-feeling, and were to some extent influenced by my surroundings as much as the poem. The poet visited me mid-way through my stay, and among other observations, made a wish for me to include a person in the pictures. I resisted, initially, but we talked for a long time, and eventually I asked if I could perhaps include some symbol of humankind. He proposed a skeleton, and I agreed. I liked the anonymity, and the empathetic feeling between the rocks and the bones.

Early in 1994, I was artist-in-residence at Scoil Stiofán Naofa, (Saint Stephens School). This is a PLC, (post second level) college in an industrial environment. I used the residency as an opportunity to contrast my rural working environment with the urban surroundings of the school. I made a series of drawings and paintings from both localities.

1995-97, After a short trip to Tunisia, the mosaics, and remains of the buildings by previous civilisations, entered, unasked, into my work. They have meant a dramatic turnabout, from growing, natural, sources, to man-made ones. The low-key colour values, and gently vibrating colour contrasts, have both caused questions central to my previous use of colour. I started painting with oil paints again. The skeleton briefly entered, in colour, as a device to provide distance from humanity, while I put it under investigation. I explored themes of self-importance, or self-aggrandisement, in relation to achievement, tradition and religion. I used a mixture of high and low-contrast colour, realistic and juxtaposed images. As of February 1999, I still had not reached a conclusion in these works. (I brought them to a final stage in late 1998)

1996, Not having drawn from a live model since my college days (finishing in 1976), I started attending a life-drawing session every week. Drawing the naked human form requires a different sensibility than for almost any other type of art, simply because we are human. Our expectations, therefore, are much heightened. When drawing trees from life, faithful and rigorous though my working drawings always strove to be, making a branch look too long did not carry the same dread as say, making a neck, or a nose, too long. I remain committed to drawing as underlying art. It has two main functions: As an end in itself, and as a plan for another work, perhaps in paint or sculpture, or even a larger drawing.

1997-98, The more recent work is purely visual. I continue to use mosaic colours, warm stone arches, and other images from Tunis, Carthage and more recently the unlikely location of Ibiza. There is only a passing reference to achievement or sanguinity. The scepticism and cynicism to some extent apparent in the work of 1995-97, has disappeared. Even though there are no people or symbols of people in these new works, they are nonetheless, all about people.

Observed from Below, Oil on paper, 31 x 41 cm, 1997, Private collection

1999, So far, this year, I have been revisiting some old themes. Some of this has been the result of entering exhibitions that have a specific theme. For example, the theme for this year’s Fish Publishing Art prize was “Water”. My entry was a mixture of land and pools of water, reminiscent of the “Gearagh Works” pieces of 1991. I continue to make the life drawings. Maybe human forms will come more overtly into my paintings. I don’t know. While plans can be made meticulously at the start of a painting, as the painting progresses, it takes on a life of its own, to some extent. This isn’t a mysterious or magical thing, however. It is merely the painter in me being sensitive to the marks and colours I have already made.

Work continued to be fuelled by ideas of arches and mosaics. A large private commission allowed me to work very closely with my arches, in a series of ten works. This series was first worked directly onto the ten supports together. These formed a large rectangle measuring 122x152cm. After I had achieved balance in the large rectangle, I separated the ten parts and worked on each small piece, individually. I maintained the original painted shapes, but I allowed the colours and textural treatment to vary from one to the other. The ten works were eventually framed separately. This commission took up the latter half of the year.

2000, The first half of the current year has seen me making several pieces for specific invited exhibitions. Some allowed development of existing themes or ideas while others were more located in particular places. As the year has progressed, I have begun to work again in multiples. Anonymous Portrait for Everyone, Alkyd on prepared paper, 147 x 116cm, 2000A large portrait mosaic containing 25 sheets of paper has been approached in a similar way to the commission of last year. This time the piece has been painted with all the sheets together then apart, individually, and finally together again. This is a very slow process, but one that allows meticulous attention to each part of the surface. The subject of this piece is a new departure, but contains elements that are to the forefront of previous works. The piece is constructed in a mosaic method. Through painted grids that imitate the tesserae and the arranged sheets of paper, I “build” the picture. The format follows the colours common to old Roman mosaics. The huge, over-life-size head that takes up the greater part of the work is a celebration of ordinary people. While there are recognisable features, the clarity has been scumbled out into a foggy, out-of-focus image, reminiscent of the sfumato technique, but using light rather than shadow as its centre. The eyes of the figure have whites, but no pupils, to further accentuate the anonymity of its gaze. I continue to work slowly on other pieces, painting over areas until I feel that the surface patinations have allowed a metaphorical as well as a physical depth to result. I am suspicious of paintings that work too quickly for me. I continue with my life–drawing sessions. I still find them very searching and I still value the discipline that they instil. Their almost instant results (successes and failures alike) provide a good foil for my slow-moving studio-based work.

My paintings this year also include some watercolours on smooth paper and some small alkyd on paper pieces. Ever-smaller sections of mosaic are my sources. These have by now become notional, more to do with fragments of remembered borders or colours or even just the satisfying jigsaw–like way of “assembling” (painting) them.

Three Heads Triptych, alkyd on prepared paper, 32 x 24 cm, 2000 - Private CollectionMy most recent piece is a small triptych of three heads, containing elements of the large mosaic piece. It is much more loose and fluid, with almost all of the local detail defaced. The colours started off within the conventional mosaic portrait range, but the three sheets of prepared paper have ended much more intensely coloured than I might have predicted. The subject harks back through the recent 25–sheet piece, to a small mosaic panel that I painted, based on elements of the Sousse Mosaic, in Tunisia. The original mosaic shows the poet Virgil seated, with Clio, the muse of history to one side and Melpomene, the muse of tragedy to the other. Over the centuries Virgil’s nose has become damaged and this makes it difficult to imagine what this recorded individual might once have looked like. Thinking of all the countless millions of unrecorded people who have lived since, I decided to mark their existence in my small way.

Anonymous Portrait, Mosaic; Oil on panel, 31 x 21 cm; 1998/99; Private Collection

This was my first “Anonymous Portrait Mosaic”. I treated the area surrounding the head as though it were one of the formal mosaic portraits. A warm yellow/green stone colour predominates and is set out in a formal, if broken, grid of tiles. The head and shoulders are vague and misty and are painted without any gridded reference. On the head, a laurel wreath indicates victory of some sort, the garment is a bluish white, but we have no indication of the person’s real identity. Though this piece is small, it is very intensely worked. I painted it over a two-year period, starting early in 1998. The initial idea was simple enough, but the interpretation required a lot of balancing. The new triptych lies somewhere between the intention of the recent large portrait, without its formal layout and treatment, and the fluidity of the painting of the face in the small panel.

For the latter part of the year I painted more small abstracted oil on paper mosaics. Along with other paintings and drawings, I showed these at the first Art Ireland art fair.

2001. The year got off to a very busy start. I was awarded a large commission for the Conrad International in Dublin, which made sure that I hadn’t time to catch a cold! I was required to make a large number of small paintings in oil on hardboard (Masonite). These were based on two image types and two ranges of colour, loosely in a grid form. I enjoyed making them, mainly for two reasons: (i) I had never set myself up to work on a large number of paintings before. I realised that I would need to approach the project in a businesslike way, with regular working hours, not allowing for any temptation to work late into the night, as I might do when work is going well. Because there was a strict deadline I knew that I couldn’t afford to exhaust myself on one day, because my work on the following day would suffer as a consequence (ii) I enjoyed working within the limited means, in terms of colour, images and size. The commission worked out well, and I was asked to do another set for later in the year. Following the commission I found that I was able to work with renewed vitality. I made two paintings. Each of these consisted of four, square panels, forming a larger, open, square. (There was a space between each individual square). These were covered in a heavily painted mosaic. On each, I painted a partial profile of a face, one looking left, and the other, right. (Anonymous Portrait Mosaic, Looking Left/Right) Then I made two, smaller paintings, in which the crown of a head appeared at the bottom of each, below a mosaic grid with a contrasting stripe. (Anonymous Mosaic, Aspiration #1, & #2) I painted the human references to the bottom of these in order to make a sense of reaching towards, or, aspiring. The figure was also conceived as a human image, or spirit, fleeing over the more permanent stones of a man-made mosaic. I also made a series of small oil on paper paintings. These described particular parts of the borders made around the Roman mosaics, adapted pictorially, or compositionally, so that a seemingly insignificant corner could be seen for itself, rather than the whole. (Mosaic Spirit Border series) The next painting was a very strongly painted mosaic surface. I built up a surface that hid many layers of paint. Each small tile had its own presence. Around the border, I built up a deep, dark brown pattern, which in places had greens of equal intensity. The border’s darkness allowed the lighter tiles (tesserae) to glow quite brightly. When all the surfaces satisfied me, I allowed a vague, spiritual face/form some space at the bottom left of the picture. It is almost unnoticeable against the tiles, but it is the whole core of the work. (This piece is called “Anonymous Spirit Mosaic”) I exhibited these in a show called “Drawing from Mosaics” (May).

After this exhibition finished, I started work on four large, oil on linen pieces. These mixed the images and methods of the “Anonymous Spirit Mosaic on a larger scale. I buried the faces and figures even deeper into the paint, sometimes only leaving scratched lines in the flesh-coloured paint. These paintings became the centre for the exhibition “Aspiration” in October.

2002. After such a busy year in 2001 I had planned to take things easy for the first part of the year. While this was my plan, it did not happen quite as seamlessly as I had hoped. Some opportunities presented themselves, and work, which I had intended to hoard for a while, was exhibited. I made two large companion pieces, “The Nameless & the Named”, the idea coming from a quote from a song by Leonard Cohen. In one, the head and shoulders of a person was silhouetted against an airy pink and blue regular background, in the other, the tones were reversed to put the figure into light, against a dark background. Later work this year concentrated solely on the representation of the head. Elements of background mosaic or grid were hardly in evidence. The features became more and more obscured, until I imagined, the viewer would play that game of trying to see a human face in a cloud, or the glowing embers of a fire, etc., except this time they would be looking at a portrait. I tried to make these general enough to describe in some way, a common ancestor, but one who could not be positively identified. To describe such a thing too completely would, I reasoned, serve only to shackle a particular message to the pieces. I felt that I had to allow as much opportunity for the observer to become a part of the work. These pieces were the “Ancestor” series. As the year progressed, I found myself experimenting with the idea that my painting would somehow become a mirror, reflecting back an image of the person observing. I hoped that the closer they scrutinised the paint, the more their own image would be revealed to themselves. I called this series “Face for a Mirror.”

Around this time I had been working on two small panels each about 1 foot tall by six inches wide, so that, when placed side by side they framed a square. In each one I placed a bust, one male and one female in yellow/cream, but with features smoothed out as to be unrecognisable - these two took up roughly the top half of the picture, the lower featured a vague horizontal form which could be read as a mumified human form which blended almost into the deep blue ground. I called the piece 'Memento' - roughtly from the well-established name commonly used to remind the viewer of the transience of human, and indeed all, life namely 'memento mori'. My intentions are both hidden and in full view.

Memento, oil on board, 61x61cm, 2000/02

The last months of the year saw me working on a series of four paintings, which show a head in stages of turning through profile to three-quarters to full-face, to three-quarters in the other direction. These maintained a light pinky colour both in the faces themselves, and the background. A small cry of hope for the individual, I called them “An Innocent.”

2003. This year I continued the light background for a larger diptych called “Lovers”. These were two vague faces, in profile, on separate panels, but facing one another. While they were both devoid of detail, we could detect characteristics of male and female in the two images. I have also continued to work on small (30x30cm.) canvasses. I am also preparing for what looks like the busiest exhibiting year yet, for me. I have instituted a new work regime for myself. I used to bemoan the fact that I seemed to be doing more administration of my career, than actual painting and realised that I needed to take more control of things. I could see that I was becoming a slave to email and the telephone. Gradually I came to the conclusion that I had been trying to work at the wrong end of the day. Instead of finding tranquillity when everyone had gone to bed, I decided to award myself the time before anyone had yet arisen. So, since March I have been starting my working day at 4.00 am. If someone had told me that I had to get up and go to work at that hour I would have said that I wouldn’t do it, but because it is my own choice it is very enjoyable. I have also regulated my bedtime to 8.00pm, which also seems to suit me. It is a lovely feeling that by 10.00 or 11.00 am I have a day’s work done, so, if I want to take time off, or meet people, I can do so without feeling that I ought to be in the studio. I am, of course, flexible. If I need to stay up later for family or other reasons, I will adjust accordingly. I am also enjoying the quality of sleep since I started my new life.

In June, I reworked a painting called “Ancestor” that I had finished at the end of last year. I had never really felt happy with the image. It looked too assured and arrogant. As I added yet more layers of paint, I became more at ease with the face. It was the piece that became my main painting in the Lead White gallery’s summer group show.

Preparations for various exhibitions are going well. Developments are steady rather than startling, which suits me fine.

2008 -2010

Journey from Sacred Paths Series


Fr Placid Murray OSB, a portrait on which I have been working over the past 21 years. I eventually brought it to its conclusion last November.

Dave Fleming is a gifted double Bass Player with whom I have been inseparable friends since the age of three (1955/6 or thereabouts). Dave has the uncanny ability to choose just the right note, especially when playing behind singers or instrumental soloists. His thoughtful choices do not come about by accident and in this portrait I have included not only some of his instrument, but behind are some of the many music CD's that are his references.

China Poet is part of a series (Chinas), that I started in late 2011 China Poet is the first of this series that I will be exhibiting. I have held onto the others for now and probably won't show any more of them until I have the makings of a solo exhibition gathered together, which may take another two years.

Incidentally the 'To Poetry' series is an offshoot from the 'Chinas' series. To date this has produced about 12 works ranging from charcoal drawings through water colours and oil on canvas studies. A small watercolour and a charcoal drawing was exhibited at the recent Hermione exhibition.

The three small watercolours for the Rock Trust Postcard Exhibition draw together some elements of the 'To Poetry' series and also reintroduce the red and white striped tent with which Punch & Judy & Commedia del Arte are associated.

The past year has been one of gathering together my ideas and making the first steps towards putting future flesh on the bones.

Culture Night 2013
Open Studio


Work so far this year is a continuation of 'To Poetry' theme. Two small charcoal drawings of this series will be exibited in my solo show 'From Some Place Inside Myself' at the Claremorris Gallery . May-June.

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