Observed and Interior Geographies

Susan Gibson Garvey

It was perhaps to be expected. Since he took up the brush full-time less than a decade ago, Ivan Murphy's landscapes have become progressively more painterly and abstract. In many of his recent works, the horizon line (that characteristic signal of landscape) has vanished altogether in favor of an overall field of active brushmarks. The subtler pigments and plasticity of oil have replaced acrylic. Confronted by his seductive surfaces, it is easy for the viewer to conclude that it is the paint alone that counts. Indeed, critic Gary Michael Dault said as much in his flattering review of Murphy's Toronto solo last year. Nevertheless, it is still the experience of landscape itself that prompts these works–a rather specific kind of landscape; not sublime, pristine wilderness nor overtly picturesque views, but more mundane vistas, marked (degraded, even) by human activity. Previous motifs include slices of city parks punctuated by lamp standards, and shorelines combined with semi-industrial buildings. Murphy quips that he is often drawn to landscapes that few people like to look at-–clear-cuts and bogs for example.

Central to this exhibition is a group of canvases prompted by the memory of a snow bound clear-cut. The image is not new in Murphy's repertoire–but its treatment is. The painting “Entry 1” presents an edgeless white field dotted overall with black occluded forms and occasional dashes of ochre. Unike Murphy's previous compositions, which were structured around rectangular planes of colour with geometric arcs and vertical posts to enter the composition (somewhat reminiscent of late Diebenkorn), the surface of “Entry 1” is worked in thick, loosely cross-hatched brush marks, white on white (a technique suggested by the hidden lattices all of tree-wreckage barely perceptible beneath the snow blanket). The pallet of ochre, white and black recalls the St. Lawrence landscapes of Jean Paul Lemieux–an apt reference, not only because Québec-born Murphy grew up with those winter landscapes, but also because the interior qualities of dream and memory conjured by Lemieux are similarly found in Murphy's compositions.

For Murphy, landscape painting is as much about an internal condition as it is about a factual record. Not that observation is absent–the curlicues of seaweed and sandy passages on his recent painting “Shore” were directly drawn from the beach beneath his feet, and the sumptuous burnt oranges and rusty cross-hatchings of “Red Site 2” were derived from autumnal vegetation witnessed in East Dover. These paintings are, however, sites of transition between the world observed and the world constructed, sites of stripping down and rebuilding–mentally, emotionally, and also physically in paint.

Murphy muses about the ethereal character of the clear-cut studies that recall for him the immense quiet of that original snowy vista, and about the predicament of seeing beauty in such banal destruction. He is conscious of the critical reserve that tends to greet any overt pursuit of aesthetic pleasure in paint since painterly abstraction’s fall from grace last century, but he comments that, history notwithstanding, his discoveries are new to him and valid enough in a context of exploration. It is hard to disagree; these canvases negotiate painting’s perennial problems with skill and grace, and offer genuinely thoughtful pleasure.