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Painters who dig below the surface

by
02 January 2015

An exhibition in Edinburgh profilestwo artists, Paul Martin and Idris Murphy, whose current exhibition explores the sacredness of creation. They talk to Duncan MacLaren

paul martin/idris murphy

Faerie Road, Strontium by Paul Martin

Faerie Road, Strontium by Paul Martin

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 blue. 

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 term).

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 'discover' it."

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 gallery walls.

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 spent; 
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
"God's Grandeur"

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 talks about.

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 and Thou'."

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 single perspective.

"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 representational.

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 skip." 

"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.

Festival of Pilgrimage online

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A free, one-day online festival from Christ Church Oxford.

With speakers Martyn Percy, Stephen Cottrell, Graham Usher, Dee Dyas, and Sally Welch.

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