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.
I WON'T LOOK AWAY - LYNDSEY INGRAM
Rachel Campbell Johnston
Art Critic, The Times
A single bare branch embraces the emptiness. A solitary teepee is pitched on a backdrop of gold. The boat is no more than a speck beneath sky-scraping mountains. Lonely roads loop the vastness of deserted landscapes. These images are often so pared down that you start to think they are simple. You might begin to imagine it took only moments to swirl that paint about. But don't be deceived. Simplicity, as Leonardo so famously put it, is the ultimate sophistication. And into the time that it took to create these images, the experiences of an entire life have been poured.
“Everything begins for me in my childhood,” says Suzy Murphy. “You spend your whole life just dealing with the first ten years.” And, Murphy's life story – much like her paintings – is possessed of a depth, intensity and unexpectedness that first appearances belie. She was born out of wedlock. She has never met her father. Her mother was one of eight children brought up in London's East End. And, in those days, it was still Don McCullin's East End, Murphy says: a world of slums and sweat shops and bombed out air raid shelters. For the first five years of her life, she lived with her grandmother, brought up amid uncles and aunts not much older than her. Then her mother married and the family emigrated to Calgary, full of dreams for their future.
Imagine how the Canadian wilds must have felt to a five-year-old girl: at once thrilled by the open expanses around her and homesick for her old familiar brick-built world. That will give you an idea of the strength of the vision that flooded her wide-eyed stare. “It felt so huge” she tells me. “It felt so powerful.” And, having imbibed something of her mother's Irish Catholic religion (she believed in Jesus, she tells me, but because she had been brought up amid East End sweat shops, she always imagined him to be a Jewish tailor, stooped over his Singer, sewing suits for the dead), all that she saw was pervaded by her sense of the spiritual. “I always think of that landscape as God's land,” she tells me. Her abstract expanses are imbued with a numinous aura. Light shines through the colour, as if from some infinite beyond.
The Canadian experiment did not last long. She was not yet eight when the family returned to London; for a while to the East End, and then to Clapham where they lived above the sweet shop that they had bought. (That too left a legacy, apparently: “I've got a filling in every single tooth; they are literally crumbling as I speak,” Murphy laughs). It was then that her mother did what she describes as “an extraordinary thing”. She scrabbled together the money to send her daughter to private school. The girl who had found outer freedom in the Canadian wilds, now began to discover an inner freedom too. This was the freedom to be herself.
Murphy had always loved drawing. Now it was recognised that she was really good. In the holidays, sent back to her grandmother, she would be given a bit of money (to buy lunch of pie and mash) and left free to roam. “We ran wild on the buses,” she remembers. Often she would end up at Trafalgar Square. That's how she found the National Gallery. “I would stand awestruck in front of Rembrandt,” she says, unpinning a postcard of one of his portraits (Margaretha de Geer) from her studio wall. “I couldn't believe the way that a painter had captured a soul. I was amazed that a picture could transport me. And I loved the way that a Rembrandt could feel almost like a still from a film: like a moment frozen in time.”
Murphy also found William Blake. She bought a pamphlet of his poems. His images entranced her. They had a symbolic clarity which entered her childish imagination unfiltered.
It took some time for Murphy to find her feet as a painter. “If you don't have a family or a tutor to guide you, you are in a world that you don't understand.” She studied art for a spell at St Martin's, she embarked on an MA in existential psychotherapy. All that did, she says, was reinforce her conviction that everything she needed to know could be found in the painting studio. In the end it was the security of marriage that put her firmly on track. Even with three toddler sons of her own to bring up, she managed to stick to her course.
Each of her paintings begins in a diary: a moleskin which she slips into her pocket when she goes for a hike. This show draws from diary number XXV; filled during trips to Tennessee and Colorado last year. When something catches her eye she sits down and draws. “Drawing is very important,” she says; “you can only understand colour if you understand black and white. You have to understand light and dark to sculpt an image.” Serried ranks of saplings are captured in simple parallel strokes. Telegraph lines swoop across double pages. Rhythms and patterns and structures are mapped. They are the heartbeat of her pictures. It is no coincidence that she always listens to music – any music with a strong beat – when she works. Other drawings – the silhouettes of pine forests against jagged mountain horizons, a farm truck left parked in a woodland clearing – speak rather of mood.
When something particularly strikes her, she will go further, working in oil paint. This will serve as an aide memoire. Back in her studio, she “fiddles around with it”. And then, if it really resonates, she starts to build it up. But it has to resonate, she insists. “I don't think of myself as a landscape painter. These works are all about me, they are about my emotions …” she adds.
Take her painting: I Should Not Sleep. The black boughs of a tree arch protectively over a teepee. The background is an abstract expanse of yellow-gold. This painting, she tells me, draws on her childhood memories of teepees in Canada. It speaks of her feeling for trees. “I love them; they seem so strong and so safe.” The backdrop is that colour, because she was travelling in October. Everything around her was glowing with autumnal gold. But the title of the painting alludes to a constant wariness which, she acknowledges, is part of her nature. “I am always on the look out for danger, because so many dangerous things have happened to me in my life.” In her studio – “her safe place” as she describes it – she works to distill all this information into a single image: “an image of exactly what it meant to be me to be there, at that moment in time.”
In a way Murphy is returning to what she first discovered in Rembrandt: the way he could still the drama of a moment. She is drawing on that rich depth of symbolism which she found in Blake. Flipping through her diary she finds a scribbled note: “A symbol by definition participates in that to which it points, unlike a sign, which points by arbitrary convention. So it is with painting. I am in it – and both in the object, and the act of painting the object otherwise it's just an image, a sign, an illustration, and I'm not interested in that.”
These lessons and countless others have been imbibed. They have dissolved into a matrix of memories. Now, it is her own individual vision that she must crystallise. “There are so many elements to painting,” she says. “Narrative, atmosphere, scale, the language of the paint must all be taken into account. But as I've got older, I have concentrated more and more on making the message clearer and clearer.”
Murphy sets out to distil the world down to its visual essence. She is out to capture something that feels so fundamentally true that, tapping into a shared human consciousness, it strikes a universal chord. The result is an image that seems a bit like a memory: constantly present yet curiously unreachable. Her work feels so familiar, yet you can't put your finger on it. All you know is that what might have been ordinary, instead seems strange and mysterious and resonant. “I want each painting to work like a portal”, she tells me. She creates not surfaces but spaces through which we, as spectators, can slip. It's as easily simple - and as magically complex - as that.
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.