Birth Name: Suzy Murphy
Born: 1964, London
Education: St. Martin's School of Art, 1982; Villa Arson, Nice 1985
Awards: 1987 Elizabeth Greenshields Prize, 1982 Henry Yates Thompson Art Prize, 2016 National Open Art Landscape Prize
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 1963 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.
In the late 19th century, the fluidity and atmospheric nature of painting was used to describe the music of French composers Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. They were daubed Impressionists for their ability to arouse and reflect emotions or atmosphere in a similar way to the era’s artists. Suzy Murphy’s atmospheric canvases do a similar thing. Her starting point is emotion and the attempt to depict the internal experience. The results are canvases that exist between landscape, abstraction and self-portraiture.
Murphy’s work emerges from memory. The starting point is a series of road trips she has taken across America. While in transit, she writes and sketches in an ongoing series of small black A6 diaries. These studies are not the direct sources for her later work. Instead they are where she distils her experiences, alongside the thoughts about her approach to painting. “I’m not a photographer. I don’t take great photographs, but I use them to just trigger my memory and then I just go.” Murphy explains.
Composition, structure and the application of paint are all things that are innately part of her process almost to the level of subconscious. These elements fade in contrast to her focus the feelings she tries to replicate or express through her medium. The works at first appear like landscapes – the road moving through the canvas, the eye following the bend of the yellow line on the asphalt. Yet there is always a figurative element. Murphy’s earlier paintings often depicted a young, lone girl within an emotive, hazy landscape or on the edge of a dark forest. This female form, which stood in for the artist’s presence itself, has transformed in her current work. The body has been reduced to a condensed glow – the two glowing headlights of a moving vehicle. There is a human element here but the work is not about the body.
Scale is central to her approach. Her initial sketches form the impetus for paintings that are up to 2 metres tall, larger than the artist herself. She also creates A4-sized smaller canvases that have a greater sense of detail then her looser larger works. “For me it’s about entering into the picture. When they’re tiny, I fall into them. When they’re big, I fall into them,” she considers. “I’ve really always thought a lot about the size and how you as the artist falls into it and get lost in it.”
This sense of falling Murphy experiences when creating the work is something echoed in the viewer’s response. Yet Murphy is more concerned with the intimate and internal process of creation. Painting has a strongly therapeutic role for Murphy as a way to exorcise her internal emotional state. “I don't really think about the viewer. I do think about emotions. I know when it’s right, because the emotion in me is right.” Her emotional states are varied - anger, sadness, loss, hope, the indescribable space between it all.
Murphy first experienced the landscape of America as a child. Born in London’s East End to an Irish mother, she moved to Calgary in Canada aged five when her mother later married and was awed by the landscape. “We went from East End tenement living to suddenly having a car and this vast open space. When I got married and had children, I would take them to Wyoming. I’ve always been drawn back,” Murphy explains. This fascination with physical geography and space is not just about the landscape itself. It is rather the sensation of being removed from her environment. “There’s something about being the stranger, about being the outsider, being a traveller in a country that you love but don’t belong to. You see things with a fresh eye,” Murphy considers. The location of the paintings is almost incidental. “Landscape is about the land. This is really about me,” the artist explains.
Repetition is at the heart of her process. She repaints certain subjects or compositions until they are out of her system. “I paint them again and again and again until I get to the bones of just what I want to say. That’s the compulsion when I’m painting,” Murphy explains. “People often say ‘why do you paint the same thing? Because that hasn’t answered it.” This sense of repetition is also her approach increasingly abstract. There is a still a fascination with woodlands as a visual motif, for example, but her depiction of tress is becoming freer, less detailed. The forest has become just a hinted outline or blur. It is something that drives the viewer to focus on the emotional impact of colour, form and medium.
Her palette is something that also is in transition. Drawing on road trips across America during the election of Donald Trump, there is a move to deep reds. “It was like watching the prince pass the crown to the clown. I was literally watching this on the TV live like this cannot be happening. People were so disillusioned with the system, so frustrated that they would give him a chance.” That sense of shift emerges in her use of colour, a sense of shock, a hint of the political.
There is an inbuilt sense of narrative in the road trip, the depiction of transition. Yet in Murphy’s work we are not getting from one place to another. Instead she creates a space of continuous travel, or indefinite midpoint. There is no ‘story’ per se, just moments that distill the artist’s experience of living. In her notebooks, she writes, “The images push up like figures floating deep below the surface that swim to the surface.” Her paintings attempt to give form to the unseen energetic impulses of her life. The results are works that reconsider the role of beauty in contemporary painting.