I Won’t Look Away
Essay by 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.