WITH age comes wisdom, the book of Job suggests. As one looks at
the exhib- ition of paintings by Paul Martin and Idris Murphy, the
ancient maxim seems to hold water. It is heart-warming to encounter
two artists from different continents whose ways have converged
over a life- time.
They first met in London, in the 1970s, at the age of 22,
through mutual friends within the Arts Centre Group, an
organisation established in London to provide mutual support for
artists who were Christians. At that time Murphy, an Australian,
says that their work was very different.
"I wasn't interested in going in the direction that he seemed to
be going. We didn't really see eye to eye on a lot of things - but
that was a long time ago."
It was almost 40 years before the two artists met again, when
Murphy, on a visit to Edinburgh from Sydney, received a last-minute
invitation to a dinner where Martin was also a guest. They
discovered that, over the intervening decades, their interests had
converged. "We realised we were running on fairly parallel paths,"
Murphy says. "It was pretty exciting."
After several animated conversations, they decided that they
would do something together. The fruit of this was an exhibition,
"Landscapes Inscapes", in Sydney, earlier this year. The
return match, "Edgelands", presents fresh work.
I meet Paul Martin in the upper floor of the two-storey gallery.
He effectively paints in three dimensions, evoking nature's essence
from a complex palette: gesso, pigment, lime, varnish, ink, sand,
sawdust, collage, crayon. . .
Patterns coalesce to become (in my mind) a shoal of fish,
charcoal doodles on a cave wall, craters on a lunar surface. Some
colours sing in harmony: sand and rust, chestnut and gold leaf,
ochre and duck-egg blue. Elsewhere, the notes are discordant -
burnt stumps of an ancient forest, roughly branded with royal
FOR Martin, "Edgelands" does not represent a place, or a
physical border. "It's a way of describing the boundary between
visualisation and the real thing," he says. "What I have been
trying to do is to step back and say: is it possible to evoke
something so we get a sense of it before we see the visual
description of it?"
It is evident from his catalogue that Martin has embarked on a
pilgrimage. Six or seven years ago, he broke from his
characteristic figurative style - to the disappointment of some of
his followers, who accused him of going "abstract" (he disavows the
From the 1990s onwards, his work was populated by long, mournful
faces, tilted heads, and a rummage-drawer of repeated symbols:
chequerboards, bells, birds, eggs, boats, paper crowns. . . These
symbols are by no means facile, but Martin is dissatisfied with
painting ideas. He wants to get at the "truth" of nature, and
express something of the divine that we can encounter there.
"If there is a sacredness within Creation, then I'd like to see
it," he says. "I know I have to commit myself in order to
He likens himself to a miner, digging among the lead-hills and
turning up "little bits of preciousness within the ordinariness".
It might be discovering a deep blue at the bottom of a pool in an
ancient forest, a seed pod, or the green of a leaf-tip.
Poetry helps him to notice these things. George Herbert and the
17th-century poet Francis Quarles were early influences, and lines
from Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins take their place on the
Hopkins, in particular, has provided Martin with a vocabulary
for some of his work: "rollrock", and "inscape", for example. The
painter thus follows the poet's trail:
For all this, nature is never
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
THESE "little bits of preciousness" are often elusive. Martin
says it is like glimpsing a fish that leaps in the pool, then
vanishes. The sight may be ephemeral, but it leaves us in no doubt
that there is life teeming below the surface.
"As human beings, we do a lot of stamping around and saying:
'It's mine, and I'm going to do this with it.' But the tiny things,
and the huge things, are all there, being very quiet. They are very
difficult to access for us, most of the time, because we're
switched off to it."
Martin's paintings are an invitation to rediscover the still,
small voice in Creation; the "dearest freshness deep down things".
One way he does this is by "writing" on his paintings - something
which is in continuity with his earlier work. The letters are not
meant to be read conventionally: instead, they are intended to
point to the Logos in nature.
For Martin, this pilgrimage has involved a kind of kenosis -
stripping back the figurative elements in his paintings, in order
to reach a truer description of the "scratchiness of reality". He
does not dismiss the figurative approach, but is wary of our
tendency to frame the landscape as romantic and picturesque; to
make it subservient to the "monumental" human figure.
Only by stripping out the figurative does he feel he can create
the "seedbed" for the return of the figure. And the search is
beginning to bear fruit.
"I feel as if it's been manured enough, maybe, just to start
bringing them back in. . . What configuration of these [pointing at
shapes in the painting] would start to make a hand, or an ear, or a
tilted head, or the edge of a shoe?"
THE work of Idris Murphy occupies the ground floor of the
Atrium. There, I enter a very different visual world. At first
sight, Murphy's and Martin's paintings seem to have little in
common. Murphy's are like small firework explosions of colour. They
depict landscapes (Australia, Turkey, Scotland) in apparently
simple, flat, blocks of colour: a mountain, a tree, a river.
The style seems hurried, broad-brush, even childlike - a stark
contrast to Martin's closely read, encrusted canvases. And, of
course, they are different. Underlying the approach of each artist,
however, are some common themes, the "parallel paths" that Murphy
For a start, both are trying to find in their painting a new
language that moves away from treating nature as an object. Murphy
is, and has always been, a man of the out- doors. His father was a
forest officer, and he joined him on trips into the Bush.
"The whole Western tradition, from the Renaissance on, has been
this very focused, objective way of seeing things," Murphy says.
"Living in a country where we find ourselves surrounded by the
oldest living culture in the world . . . indigenous art . . . for
me, it was an extraordinary reawakening of all those ways of
looking at the land."
Martin and Murphy are both seeking to embrace a more relational
view. Martin talks about the way in which we tend to "ooh and aah"
over picturesque landscapes with a gaze that is almost prurient.
But what if we were to become more open and receptive?
"If you are going to enter into that, it means that you have to
completely give yourself to it," Martin says. "It's the idea of 'I
A crucial element for Murphy in grasping this relational view is
an insight he gleaned from John V. Taylor's book The Go-between
God. "The truth about an object or a person", Murphy
says, "is very different from the truth of a person, or an
object, or a mountain, or whatever."
MURPHY considers himself fortunate to have been exposed to the
art (and landscape) of a non-Western culture, which invites him to
see the world in a new way. It was on a visit to the Australian
desert that he became acutely aware of the limitations of our
"One of my aboriginal mates said 'Come outside' - it was late at
night - 'and I'll show you the emu in the sky.' And I said, 'Great,
this'll be good.' So, I'm looking up, and I'm trying to connect
these white dots, and thinking: How do they make an emu? Is it
small, it it large? He says, 'It's big, it's big, keep looking,'
and I say, 'I can't get it.'
"He says, 'Ah, you white guys! You're looking at all the little
stars connecting up; it's the black shapes in between.' I then
could see this huge emu shape. My whole Western thinking was about
points, objectivity, lining up things . . . and being a black guy,
he's laughing even more at me."
If Murphy's audience approach his paintings "trying to connect
the white dots", they are unlikely to see the emu. These are not
landscapes fixed in time or season; nor are they
The apparent ease of his broad brush belies careful attention to
form and composition. Inspired by Matisse, his use of colour is
startling: "I was lucky enough to turn up in parts of the outback
where there wasn't a colour you couldn't use - because, eventually,
in part of the day it was already there."
Both Martin and Murphy work with a humble sense that what they
create is somehow "given". For Murphy, it is is a learned skill to
notice that something has been granted to him, and to say "yes" to
it. I ask Murphy whether he has a theology for this gift.
"That's a good question. I think artists have understood that,
historically. But I think you get good at it; it's not something
you can manufacture. Chance is a part of it, and of course the
Fathers would call it serendipity. But something happens, and
you've got to be ready to acknowledge it. That takes practice."
I wonder about this "something". Murphy laughs: "As a badly
practising Christian, I would think this. . . George Steiner speaks
of great pictures having a 'real presence'. Whatever makes
communication in the world - theologically, I'd say that's God -
that's something that makes the response between you, and the
picture, you and the mountain, something that is outside you. My
pictures are trying to convey some of that."
For Martin, the sacredness is accessible through the discipline
of noticing, and committing yourself to nature - as a
fellow-subject. With an oblique reference to Psalm 114, he says:
"I'm interested to know what it means for mountains to
"Edgelands" runs until 25 January at Warburton
Gallery, 1 India Buildings, Victoria Street, Edinburgh.
For more information visit www.warburtongallery.com, or
phone 0753 217 1842.