Born: 1964, London
Education: St. Martin's School of Art 1982
Awards: 1987 Elizabeth Greenshields Prize (Bursary from McGill University), 1982 Henry Yates Thompson Art Prize, Selected for Threadneedle 2010/14, National Open Art Landscape Award 2016
The stillness of the snow covered open landscapes, the mysterious beam of a car’s headlamp on a deserted road and dense moonlit forests are recurrent themes within Suzy Murphy’s oeuvre. These seminal images are not merely visual representations of the landscapes that she observes; they are imbued with a deep emotional dialogue and an underlying political commentary that communicates profoundly with the viewer within an autobiographical context and through self-portraiture rather than the genre of landscape painting.
Born in London's East End in 1964 to a teenage mother and raised by Irish grandparents, Suzy Murphy moved to Alberta, Canada aged five. From occupying a small tenement apartment with her large Irish family to emigrating with her mother to the vast open landscapes of North America, the subsequent emotional shift of being alone was the creative catalyst for the tranquillity and magical realism that informs her work.
Suzy Murphy’s love of North America has remained, and for several years has travelled extensively on road trips from the monumental landscapes of the Rocky Mountains of Western Canada to the sprawling townships and prairies of the Western United States. Her diarised sketches speak of this time and her paintings reflect it. This narrative of her life is the subconscious thread that runs throughout her work and continues to present itself in her paintings.
Suzy Murphy is an alumna of St Martin’s School of Art, London in 1982. Her work has been exhibited in several solo and group exhibitions and has been the recipient of several awards including Henry Yates Thompson Art Prize in 1982, Elizabeth Greenshields Prize in 1987 and National Open Art Landscape Prize in 2016. Her work is held in many important public and private collections worldwide.
Suzy Murphy continues to live and work in London, England.
WHEN I CLOSE MY EYES - AN ESSAY ON SUZY MURPHY BY FRANCESCA GAVIN, ART CRITIC AND CURATOR OF SOHO HOUSE GROUP, 2017
In the late 19th century, the fluidity and atmospheric nature of painting was used to describe the music of French composers Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. They were daubed Impressionists for their ability to arouse and reflect emotions or atmosphere in a similar way to the era’s artists. Suzy Murphy’s atmospheric canvases do a similar thing. Her starting point is emotion and the attempt to depict the internal experience. The results are canvases that exist between landscape, abstraction and self-portraiture.
Murphy’s work emerges from memory. The starting point is a series of road trips she has taken across America. While in transit, she writes and sketches in an ongoing series of small black A6 diaries. These studies are not the direct sources for her later work. Instead they are where she distils her experiences, alongside the thoughts about her approach to painting. “I’m not a photographer. I don’t take great photographs, but I use them to just trigger my memory and then I just go.” Murphy explains.
Composition, structure and the application of paint are all things that are innately part of her process almost to the level of subconscious. These elements fade in contrast to her focus the feelings she tries to replicate or express through her medium. The works at first appear like landscapes – the road moving through the canvas, the eye following the bend of the yellow line on the asphalt. Yet there is always a figurative element. Murphy’s earlier paintings often depicted a young, lone girl within an emotive, hazy landscape or on the edge of a dark forest. This female form, which stood in for the artist’s presence itself, has transformed in her current work. The body has been reduced to a condensed glow – the two glowing headlights of a moving vehicle. There is a human element here but the work is not about the body.
Scale is central to her approach. Her initial sketches form the impetus for paintings that are up to 2 metres tall, larger than the artist herself. She also creates A4-sized smaller canvases that have a greater sense of detail then her looser larger works. “For me it’s about entering into the picture. When they’re tiny, I fall into them. When they’re big, I fall into them,” she considers. “I’ve really always thought a lot about the size and how you as the artist falls into it and get lost in it.”
This sense of falling Murphy experiences when creating the work is something echoed in the viewer’s response. Yet Murphy is more concerned with the intimate and internal process of creation. Painting has a strongly therapeutic role for Murphy as a way to exorcise her internal emotional state. “I don't really think about the viewer. I do think about emotions. I know when it’s right, because the emotion in me is right.” Her emotional states are varied - anger, sadness, loss, hope, the indescribable space between it all.
Murphy first experienced the landscape of America as a child. Born in London’s East End to an Irish mother, she moved to Calgary in Canada aged five when her mother later married and was awed by the landscape. “We went from East End tenement living to suddenly having a car and this vast open space. When I got married and had children, I would take them to Wyoming. I’ve always been drawn back,” Murphy explains. This fascination with physical geography and space is not just about the landscape itself. It is rather the sensation of being removed from her environment. “There’s something about being the stranger, about being the outsider, being a traveller in a country that you love but don’t belong to. You see things with a fresh eye,” Murphy considers. The location of the paintings is almost incidental. “Landscape is about the land. This is really about me,” the artist explains.
Repetition is at the heart of her process. She repaints certain subjects or compositions until they are out of her system. “I paint them again and again and again until I get to the bones of just what I want to say. That’s the compulsion when I’m painting,” Murphy explains. “People often say ‘why do you paint the same thing? Because that hasn’t answered it.” This sense of repetition is also her approach increasingly abstract. There is a still a fascination with woodlands as a visual motif, for example, but her depiction of tress is becoming freer, less detailed. The forest has become just a hinted outline or blur. It is something that drives the viewer to focus on the emotional impact of colour, form and medium.
Her palette is something that also is in transition. Drawing on road trips across America during the election of Donald Trump, there is a move to deep reds. “It was like watching the prince pass the crown to the clown. I was literally watching this on the TV live like this cannot be happening. People were so disillusioned with the system, so frustrated that they would give him a chance.” That sense of shift emerges in her use of colour, a sense of shock, a hint of the political.
There is an inbuilt sense of narrative in the road trip, the depiction of transition. Yet in Murphy’s work we are not getting from one place to another. Instead she creates a space of continuous travel, or indefinite midpoint. There is no ‘story’ per se, just moments that distill the artist’s experience of living. In her notebooks, she writes, “The images push up like figures floating deep below the surface that swim to the surface.” Her paintings attempt to give form to the unseen energetic impulses of her life. The results are works that reconsider the role of beauty in contemporary painting.
LIVED AND RETOLD: AN INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST HARLAND MILLER, 2010
Harland Miller: Looking at your new work, I'm reminded of something you said previously about a line that runs back through your art, back some twenty years or so. I like this idea of a line, it somehow suggests to me something simultaneously strong, or dependable, a life-line if you like; but also, conversely, something without a beginning or an end - sort of suspended in space. I like this contradiction. Is there an inherent contradiction in your work?
Suzy Murphy: Well, I guess there is a contradiction in the work in that what they first appear to be and what you are left feeling afterwards can seem at odds. I mean, I think at first they seem poetic and beautiful but when you sit with them a while there is this uneasiness.
HM: I don't want to keep referring to things you have said in the past - and we'll get on to some of the things you're saying about the new work - but I recall something you said that I really liked about how a lot of contemporary art, art that is considered to be relevant, is coming from an angry place - anger that's to do with urban angst, and all that stuff that you experience, or have experienced, on a daily basis but that you don't feel in your soul.
SM: No I don't, not in the core of my being, not like when I look at Samuel Palmer for example, and I really do feel what it is that he is saying and I believe, for me anyway, that a spiritual language outlasts the urban angst.
HM: The work is very - I want to avoid the work 'painterly' because it's such a kind of coverall term - but I think you'll know what I mean when I say that, don't you? It's very textured and the sensibility is a lot to do with the application of the paint. Your touch, if you like? Yet the imagery reminds me so much of movie stills. Not specific movies, but genres, you might say - there is something unsettling about them - about the figures isolated in inhospitable landscapes. They are harbingers of doom. I'm thinking of Nic Roeg's 'Don't Look Now' where the bereaved father keeps catching sight of the figure in the red duffel coat. In those fleeting glimpses she appears lost and running scared, when in fact she is the nightmare. Again, there is that contradiction.
SM: Hmm. I suppose the figures can seem scary because they are all memory. And I think memory is a bit scary. I think about memory a lot.... what it is, what is true. I mean perhaps we only make it up into what it is after the event. The work definitely holds some of the anxiety. You definitely question what is going to happen to the figures. This suspense, which I can see is cinematic, is also, I think, a way of getting the viewer to engage. I think this cinematic idea is interesting because in many ways the paintings are like that, a still, a negative. Time caught.
HM: I wanted to talk about snow. About the role of snow in your work - snow is instantly nostalgic. Everybody always imagines it snowed more when they were young than it probably did. Actually, this is probably a lot to do with movies as well, but I wondered where does that come from in your work? Again, I find snow has this contrast in that it looks beautiful, but it often obscures, or creates some kind of ugly truth.
SM: Yeah, snow... People always ask about this. Well there is the obvious reference of having spent a part of my childhood in Canada. Before going there, I had lived in the East End of London and it was a huge cultural shock. It definitely had an enormous impact on me. It's a place I go to a lot in my mind; a reference point you might say. Also, there is a sort of literary influence. Narnia was my favourite book as a child, so if there is any cultural reference point, it is literary more than cinematic. Then again, many of the paintings are actual memories of Canada, things that I saw or that occurred; being lost in snow for example.... I do think there is also a deeper reason for painting snow. I guess it's sort of a subconscious landscape. A snow scene where I can paint out my memories, an empty canvas on which I paint my emotions; a painterly freedom if you like. Funny, you say that snow obscures some ugly truth. I think of it as simply giving me the freedom not to paint what I don't have to. The bare bones, if you like. Everything reduced to only what needs to be there. I like that.
HM: There is a stillness in your work that I was always aware of but I think in this recent painting of a jumbo jet grounded it is really resounding, perhaps because it is a collective silence. Planes are unique in that they take you vast distances in short amounts of time, and I think that this acts as a catalyst on people's emotions. Everything is heightened - no pun intended - this is why you can yourself moved by banal movies. Sorry! (laughs). I'm not saying your work is banal, but it is very moving when you sit with it. It's an incredibly difficult thing to pull off in a painting - and to be honest, people, certainly English people on the whole, prefer not to have to have an emotional response to art, or anything actually! The cliché does hold up actually. If you go to Germany they don't mind having an emotional response to art, but we really feel more comfortable having a cerebral response.
SM: Well I'm pleased if you do have an emotional response to the work. That's what I'm looking for when I'm painting it. The emotion of the piece is far more motivating for me when I'm working on it than the ideas I hold around it. Of course, there are cerebral moments! (laughs) but finally it is the emotion of a piece that carriers it through for me. It's ultimately what hooks you about a piece. What it makes you feel. You mention the stillness and I want to talk about that. This goes back to the beginning of our conversation, in that it is something I have always carried through in my work since college really. This stillness, it's like this forgotten moment, which for me is really important. A snapshot into our lives. This snapshot of memory which is actually telling us a lot. I like that expression 'physical silence'. I really feel this is what I'm trying to paint, especially in the plane painting. Time stilled. A frozen moment. I also find it quite emotive... this huge, physical object brought to a standstill by nature. I guess one of the reasons for painting cars or planes is that they evoke this emotion in you. They are caught in the painting. Stilled. And yet they are also taking you on this journey. I guess in the paintings you are always setting off, or in transit, but you never arrive, and that can leave you with an uncomfortable feeling. And I want the viewer to go on this emotional journey with me.... but I don't know where it ends.
HM: Perhaps this is a good place to end. Thank you.
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