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Today’s guest on the Landscape Conversation is one of Australia’s leading contemporary landscape painters, Idris Murphy. Idris’ paintings, drawings and printmaking reflect an intense contemplation of and immersion in Australia’s remote landscapes. His work brings together figuration, abstraction and storytelling through a raw and vibrant approach to colour and composition. Idris’ work is held in a number of major collections including The National Gallery of Australia, the Federal Parliament House Art Collection, the Art Gallery of NSW and the State Library of Queensland.
View Idris' work here
Anton: For me, this discussion’s really about how we understand what’s out – with the landscape and how we can conceive of it differently. Different people conceive of it differently.
Idris: Well, I think that’s the main interest that I’ve got in that and that also, at a whole different set of levels, is what I’m - the people I read, the people I look at, how I make sense of my own surroundings and also the work itself and you’ll accumulate over a long time different ideas which you take in and play with and reject or rethink and so, I mean, it really comes down to a kind of world view really.
Anton: Well one of the questions I’ve asked others is also when do you think you first became aware of this notion of landscape as opposed to just the stuff out there?
Idris: Well, I mean, we could start it back to front really. There’s nearly a sense where now I’m trying to think about a different term for landscape because the word “landscape”, it comes from Dutch and German background - landskip, right? And then, on top of that, I got the idea that indigenous people had no words that described various parts of the landscape sort of looking out from urban to whatever that is in between urban, and there’s all sorts of terms we can use for that, and then the bush or wilderness, and so then you’ve got all the sort of problems here. We talk about wilderness and you’ve got the base word for that - or words - one of them is “wild-deer-ness. Well, wild-deer-ness has nothing to do with Australian landscape except out here, close to where I live, where they’re trying to eradicate deer. I mean, they were from Indonesia. They weren’t even stags at bay. I mean, they’re the wrong kind of deer. So the idea of - and, when I was talking about this with a girl who was a pretty interesting girl from one of the universities in English, she was saying whether the other word is, is bewildered. Wilderness come - and I said, “Well that’s closer to most Europeans looking at our landscape when they first came here,” and then you get all the kind of connotations about people talking about drown - they talk about being drowned in the landscape, in the bush. They went into the bush and never came back, so they got drowned, and all the early settlers that came here - I forget. There’s some kind of vague notion but about 1% of everybody that came across the sea could swim and so, if you got wrecked at sea, you drowned. That was it. And in the eighteenth century you had - you know, the British built their houses with the back to the sea because they couldn’t bear to look at such an uncontrollable, uncontrolled element.
Anton: Just in terms of that, I understand this landscape, you know. Did you grow up in a close relationship to that?
Idris: Yeah, sort of, because - oh, Bankstown, which for anyone else outside Sydney. I mean, that’s kind of like working class kind of stuff and I lived with my grandmother in the house that my grandfather built and my parents lived there with the kids for quite a long time until they came out to this area, Sutherland Shire, which was then a holiday place really. It was the bush, the bush. It was the bush. But my dad was a forest officer, so I had his farming background. I learned to shoot when I was four. We went everywhere fishing. Anything to do with the bush, dad was in.
Anton: Well that’s interesting that, in a way, his view of landscape was possibly a bit of an inventory of resources and useful things.
Idris: Exactly, yeah. I mean, and then, of course - I mean, I probably hadn’t thought of it in those terms. It’s just - you’re probably right but he imbued in me and my brother a love of native stuff, because he knew about trees and you had to draw the leaves and, when he was - even when he was in the Airforce, he spent three, nearly four years in the Gulf of Carpentaria. You couldn’t get a more out of the road place in the world probably what that was like. Completely cut off from the outside world for six months of the year, and basically he went hunting and shooting and fishing and they used all their supplies that were given to them to feed the pigs, because they had piggeries. And my aunt had a property up at Wyong and I used to go and stay there and go fishing by myself and wandering around the creek with the smell of wet leaves and seeing bloody birds and ducks and all sorts of animals floating around the place.
Anton: So do you see the landscape as everything or do you see the landscape as particularly non-urban?
Idris: Yeah, that’s a good question. No, I think I - I mean, because I’ve been going out to the outback, to non-treed, or I don’t know what you call it. We call it the dead centre, the red heart, all sorts of clichés, but mostly the thing that really got me going to what indigenous guys would call ‘country’, which I think is probably a better term for landscape than anything else, is that the colour was so extraordinary and colour was the thing that always rocked my boat. That was the thing that I saw early on in my art training. There were things that really got me going and that was colour first and foremost and then all the other things came after that. So that was a huge break-through when, after living in London for years and trying to paint bad Matisses and mostly because colour, and then seeing - growing up in Sydney with people like Whiteley seen as sort of the ultimate this is what you are as an artist. You know, this is the ideal of an artist, which wasn’t my ideal of an artist but I didn’t know what an artist was, and then really seeing Matisse through Whiteley’s eyes until I actually saw the first real Matisse is when I lived in London. That was - I didn’t need to look at Whiteley ever again. There was no point because we -.
Anton: And what was it about those?
Idris: Oh, it was colour. It was colour. When I saw Matisse’s colour, just how he put colour together. All of that sort of stuff. Because the difference was, for good old Henry, was that he had to go to Morocco. He had to buy lavish furnishings and beautiful hats and great dresses and get the model in, so it’s all urban in a sense, except when probably he went to Belle-Île and worked with Peter Russell, the Australian artist, and other artists. That was a much more kind of out-there kind of experience, and he did that too when he painted but it was colour that - and how you deal with colour, how you deal with the formal elements of all that and, you know, Matisse is one of the great painters and one would say Picasso, that understood the formal language in a way that a lot of artists didn’t, and I certainly didn’t till I was forced to really understand how the language worked as a language, a visual language. That was a slow thing. It just didn’t happen. But there were times - I can remember things where my arrogance and ignorance -.
Idris: Youthfulness was highly embarrassing, looking back particularly. But yeah, so really, in many ways, the question is how do we define landscape in the twenty-first century.
Anton: And I think it risks being a sort of a cliché in Australian art as well isn’t it?
Idris: Well, I mean, that is the interesting kind of problem, dilemma. It’s the - but yes, I’m really interested in paradox or apparent paradox in pictures and in life and in philosophy and theology. I’m interested in all that. But you’re right. I mean, I remember a great experience for me, when I was a very young artist, my first gallery here was - what was it - Macquarie Galleries, which then there were about two major galleries so, as a young guy, to get a show, it was like stardom. I’m glad it never eventually but initially it was and I had - the advantage of having Kevin Connor who introduced me, so I had senior artists that said, “This guy’s got something. Maybe you should look at his work.” People like that. And then I met <unclear> *00:14:10. You know, a major Australian painter, and I remember later on Lloyd saying to me on this whole problem of cliché, if you like, that he was - later in life, he - I would have been twenty something and he would have been eighty-something and he said to me, “Oh,” he said, “You know, I’m painting these pictures of the Opera House.” Now, there’s an icon and a cliché, you know, and I went, “Shit. I couldn’t do that. I mean, how do you do that with any authentic -?” and he said, “Well,” he said, “I painted one big particular picture and it was going all right and then it just kept - the warning signs: cliché, cliché, problem, problem,” and he said, “I got so angry with it one day, I picked up my pot of turps with all the brushes in it and I hurled it at the picture and then I realised, two seconds later, that not only had I virtually wrecked the picture, which was probably what I intended to do, but all this crap on the floor in the middle studio.” Anyhow, he said, “I started to clean it up and the rag I had had a bit of turps on it and so I thought well, I’ll have to clean the painting off now.” Some of the painting was dry underneath and some he’d put on which was wet and, in taking this off, he said he sort of through this haze of turps and colour, he could see the sun, which looked such a cliché, and the Opera House starting to come to life and he just cleaned the whole thing down. Went back and looked at it for a few minutes. Mixed up a bit of darker colour and made five marks on it and it was finished. So basically you have to destroy the thing that you want to get to before you can actually get to it or it allows you to get to it or whatever. Pretty interesting stuff.
Anton: It is. In a way, that’s what, with Matisse, I sort of like the find edge that he’s often on where it’s about to be destroyed or it’s not quite finished. There was a great show in Paris where they showed - I think they had 43 steps in one of his paintings that he went through during the war period, I think it was, and how much it had changed and started again.
Idris: Absolutely. And also there were other ones where - I suppose it’s partly the thing of serendipity chance but it’s sort of being prepared for chance is the other part of it.
Anton: The other view is the one that you were saying about your father and, to an extent, I see that in landscape architecture. There’s a whole branch of landscape architecture very interested in ecology and mapping and -
Idris: Yes. Absolutely.
Anton: - quantifying and the system, and so this view of landscape as a series of elements that fit together in a big machine, but again that, coming back to your work, that’s not something that you’ve - you don’t seem to be categorising kind of useful things in your work. It’s a much more search for connectivity maybe or -.
Idris: Well I mean, look, if I can give you a summation by Berger about this. I’ll read you a couple of bits if that’s okay. I mean, I won’t read all of it but that’s up to someone else to read that. They can read that if they think it’s worthwhile but this is selected essays and so this essay I think is, I think 1986 he wrote this but I could be wrong. I think that’s what it is. But he - from a European perspective, without really knowing Australian indigenous stuff. Only from a distance, and I think that’s a problem. It’s a bit like knowing a Rembrandt from a distance. You’ve never seen one but I’ve seen reproductions sort of thing. This is what he talks about, and I think, because he’s painting and he goes out into the landscape and tries to make pictures, like I do, and this is what he says:
Idris: I agree. That’s how I feel. I feel like bloody Cézanne wandering around like an old fart.
Anton: What’s driving the need to then represent that and show it to somebody?
Idris: Well, I think this is what he’s trying to get at. “The messages are not the kind that can be sent to oneself. You’ve got the third party,” (the landscape is the second). “What is on the canvas is scarcely readable as a landscape. The legibility of the image is something which must be approached with extreme caution,” and this is really more even applied to today’s artists. “The cult of obscurity is sentimental nonsense but the kind of clarity which two centuries of art encourage people to expect; the clarify of maximum resemblance is irrevocably outdated. This is not the result of mere change of fashion but a development in our understanding of reality. Objects no longer confront us. Rather, relationships surround us. These can be only illustrated diagrammatically. Even in front of a Rembrandt, we are bound to be far more conscious than before of its diagrammatic aspect. A work of art is not the same thing as a scientific model but it stands in an equivalent relationship to reality. Once it was useful to think of art as a mirror. It no longer is because our view of nature has changed. Today, to hold a mirror up to nature is only to diminish the world. The most difficult thing of all, painting on the spot, is to look at your canvas. Your glance constantly moves between the scene itself and the marks on the canvas but these glances tend to arrive loaded and return empty. The largest part of the great, heroic self-discipline of Cézanne lay precisely in this. He was able to look at his painting, in the process of being constructed, as patiently and objectively as at the subject which was complete. It sounds very easy. It’s as easy as walking on water.” See, he is talking about a way of thinking, viewing a philosophy. I mean, being a lapsed Marxist, he’s come from a material kind of world but he knows there’s a lot more to it than that and how they - he basically says, after cubism, is there any great landscape to be possibly made and that’s, for me, why it’s so exciting to look at indigenous stuff, because you can use all this western tradition where there’s questions and cubism and all this sort of stuff which, you know, there’s a moral history, but then it’s sort of wonderfully crashing in for me to indigenous kind of people, and that’s varied. That’s not just one sort of solid block. They’re thinking and looking and so that gives you a kind of a way of questioning as well as trying to make something rigid and absolute about things like this. But you’re not immune from your time, the philosophy and stuff but people like that allow you to articulate some of the things that you’re trying to do and, of course, because I’ve taught a lot, you have to try to articulate that and also, in doing that, you learn a lot. You can look at a lot of pictures. I mean, you can see I’ve got on the wall a couple of pictures which I bought from op shops or junk shops or whatever and that’s another element that is useful because they are not aware if they’re really in another objective - that’s right. So they are doing something else. What is it that - and Berger talks about that to some degree, as well.
Anton: Which in a way is a nice intro to one of the questions I had there, one of the points I had, about the role of beauty and ugliness, you know. Ugliness and landscape are something that doesn’t - I don’t know - it doesn’t come up that often, does it?
Idris: Well, no, I mean, if you take a beeline or a sort of sideline for that, one of the great writers in history and psychology and all sorts of - EH Gombrich - in a book that was published post humorously, after he died, of course, was a book on the primitive in art, which I’m particularly interested in, but at the very last chapter of all the arguments about that and how we respond to that, and I guess this relates to sort of ugliness, beauty kind of stuff on that, is that he says one thing you can’t choose is to choose to be primitive.
Anton: I think we may have talked about this before. Once you’re recognised as primitive, it’s too late.
Idris: That’s it. That’s right. And so - and Berger, in a thing called the White Bird. It’s a book called the White Bird but the main essay called the White Bird, he talks about being asked to go to universities to speak and then decides not to because he basically says, if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to go and talk about good and evil and that’s not far from beautiful and ugly and in fact, when I started first to get some recognition painting here, John McNoll, the critic, wrote this thing about my work: “Beautiful, ugly. Ugly, beautiful.” Which for me was really perfect in a sense because it was someone started to get what I’m trying to do here.
Anton: How do you choose your subjects? What do you look for?
Idris: That’s a good -.
Anton: Is it that disjunction? You know, I was just talking about your fenced works there.
Idris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Partly because in many areas of Australia, there are not many significant other elements. That’s the problem. I mean, you don’t have the church steeple or the meandering river or the little bunch of trees. I mean, you do have some of that but -
Anton: And other clichés.
Idris: That’s right. That’s right. So you can’t fall back on them because even they aren’t there any more, you know. Even the cliché’s out of the road and in summer there’s bloody flies and it’s hot and it’s dangerous and things bite you and so there’s all that. And that’s true. But there’s also exquisite sunrises and sunsets and vast distance and silence. Where do you get silence? And then there’s the whole history of the western Christian pre-Renaissance tradition. Over all of that, you know, lesser known writers from the whole Christian, Judaeistic-Christian tradition talking about choosing certain sites as meditative sites. Some because of their grandeur and beauty, some because of their isolation and desolation. You know, going some Iona; some little bloody tick of an island in the middle of Scottish nowhere. There’s a kind of beauty and ugliness and an ugliness and beauty, isn’t there? They’re sort of - they’re entrancing. They make us question and think, reassess on it. I don’t know if that answers your -.
Anton: Sort of, yeah. There’s also - just one of the other things I thought was that you live here by the sea and you’re drawn to the - yeah, suddenly it’s a thousand kilometres away.
Idris: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, in fact add to that is that, even though I’ve lived here all my life, or most of it, and, you know, I’ve lived in France and Paris and London and all that sort of stuff, but I’ve - here, you’re right. I mean, we live on the coast. This is right on the coast. Captain Cook, in 17-whatever-it-was-70, arrived out here and started the British takeover of the whole of Australia and kicked all the indigenous guys out or pushed them aside or whatever term you want to use for it - British invasion if you want. And so that happened but there’s something about even this country would have been pretty interesting once. Right? And it still is to some degree because of the national park and some things haven’t changed but there’s something about that inner kind of heart or that landscape that is both un-European and therefore you can’t use the European structures that you’ve been taught to use for bloody - well, we can go back. Landscape is a relative new genre really as a pure thing itself. In fact, I can tell you when historically - this is a few - a watercolour and gouache view by Claude Lorrain in 1640. You can look that up somewhere. That’s considered the first ever painting of the landscape on plain air. Going out and looking at it rather than eulogising it. What I call nymphs and shepherds come away. The kind of Poussin -.
Anton: Backdrop for a story.
Idris: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. And so that’s interesting itself. And then, to go out into places like that where - and the outback in Australia, it’s varied enormously in senses but the colour and its remoteness, you are forced, in many senses, to give up all those elements that you relied on both physically, mentally, psychologically, artistically, particularly in this case, so how do you deal with all this stuff. That gets back to your question of - sorry, this is going round and round. But you know, I mean there are things there that you can sort of use, which I do, and some of them are dams which are filled with sort of paradox and irony too because they’re usually built by early settlers to hold water. Most of them never have any water in them. So there’s one. And, if it has water, then you can survive and, if it doesn’t, you drown. Your animals die or - then it gets flooded and then there’s a bushfire. That sort of stuff is pretty scary stuff to live with all the time.
Anton: I think, for me in a way, these discussions are sort of interesting because of how we frame landscape and that idea what is it if we’re communicating through painting or through landscape architecture, we’re communicating an idea about landscape. What is it that we’re communicating? What’s the - like you said, is it the spiritual nature of it? Is it the paradoxes that are inherent in our cultural understanding of them? Is it the aesthetic? Is it the experiential?
Idris: It’s probably all of those at some level. I mean, great anything - music, architecture, paintings - it seems to me have something to offer at nearly all of those levels and, you know, the best indigenous stuff, even if we might not understand the kind of language, how it’s come about and maybe you don’t need to in the same way. In a western tradition, we can sort of reasonably go back so far and think about how it was constructed and why it was constructed and, you know, understand a language. I mean, one of the great things about, say, Picasso, for instance, is that, because he had early training by his father, who was teaching art and a professor, or whatever he was - I can’t remember the full story there - but who basically said well, after he’s seeing his son at 19 do that stuff, goodbye, I’m out of here. I’ll go back and keep the fire warm.
Anton: [laugh] Retire now.
Idris: That’s it. I’ve had enough. But the great thing about Picasso was that he understood the language from the renaissance and probably early renaissance but certainly the renaissance on, so he could innovate because he understood what was going on, how it was constructed, at least at an absolute formal level, where a lot of artists today missed that and so they’ve got half truths and half things and I guess, for me, that was what was so great is spending years where I could just look and just question and just paint and just think in London and in France and Paris as well, so, you know, there’s -.
Anton: Do you think that challenged the way you looked at the Australian landscape?
Idris: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. Without a doubt. In fact, when I was at Winchester College of Art, and I mean basically, when I was in Europe, I was painting bad Matisses basically. That’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to paint Bennett or Howard Hodgkins or, you know, and I talked to a couple of different artists, some really good young painters and David Hockney and we had this conversation for a while and people - just to drop a few names so you can feel how well I’m running; how well I’m bred. But yeah, seriously, that was absolutely crucial. Standing in front of a great picture. My first recognition of my arrogance and ignorance was being seen going into the National Gallery in London, walking in the door, sort of a bit bewildered and coming across my first real Van Gogh. I can remember it so well and I was elated and shocked at the same time. I was just confronted with this thing which I just thought I understood and realised I knew bugger all about it and the first searing pain of that was that I realised that the canvas was still shown through where he put these big lumps of paint in this landscape and that wasn’t in any of my art books or slides and, of course, that experience in front of great pictures is all of those things you’ve talked about in one sense but it can’t come about without the formal manipulation of a language but, you know, in Rembrandt’s case, it also comes from a belief system which has, at its base, some kind of truth, some kind of other thing, and that other thing is what makes it truly great. Now, you can’t have one without the other but that’s what I look for and that’s why someone like Frank Arbuckle, the English painter, he’s got that same kind of thing. He goes to the National Gallery to look at the Rembrandts. He’s not trying to copy a Rembrandt. He’s trying to get that other quality and use that as a critique for his own work and that’s what you’ve got to do but I mean that’s tough stuff.
Anton: And were you looking at landscape when you were in Europe? Was that -?
Idris: Yeah, I did. I did. I mean Constable and, you know, we lived in Constable territory and we went out and lived in Farrington out of Oxford for about six months and painted around there. Sure. I mean, but, you know, really it wasn’t till I came back to Australia that all these things came together.
Anton: I was going to ask you then, what was happening in Australia with the idea of landscape at the time. Was that -?
Idris: Well, there was a couple of things that I remember. You don’t remember everything but I remember coming back and I remember that I really didn’t have any content. I didn’t know what I wanted to paint, because I couldn’t paint Matisses and I was interested in Howard Hodgkins’ use of paint and colour and a lot of his stuff were landscapes, even where they’re urban or referring to things like that and, of course, of Constable and Turner and the whole tradition of European romantic - northern romantic landscape too and I was interested in different ways - I mean, I read Robert Rosenbloom’s book, “Modern Art and the Northern Romantic Tradition,” which gave you a whole other way of looking at contemporary modern art from a northern - not based in France. That was really, really useful. I thought okay, there’s more than one way to do this. One has to - and coming back here - I mean, I was not interested in - for six years, I couldn’t give a bugger about anything Australian landscape or painting. In fact, I didn’t even rate it but, when I came back here, the first thing I saw was a series of small landscapes - in fact I think they were gouache or acrylic on paper or small board - by Fred Williams and I understood why he was what he was - a bloody good painter - because he had learned the lessons from Cézanne, and then I realised my time in France, that’s the person who kept coming back to me. What has he done? How has he done that? This is important. And really, in one way I’m lucky. I mean, Robert Hughes does talk about that. In Australia in the ‘50s, early ‘60s when he left, people were teaching how to paint a Cézanne and they’d never seen one, but I had and I’d seen lots of them and stood in front of them and all that, but, you know - and then I thought well, the only thing I really care about is the landscape. In fact, before I went to art school, I was enrolled to go to an agricultural college because that’s the only thing I was really interested in.
Anton: What about the whole land art movement?
Idris: I was very sceptical. I actually worked with Christo - or I was a student wrapped up Little Bay. You know, long hair, thought I was groovy and this must be something - but in fact it may be more cynical really. I found it trite.
Anton: Did you? Interesting.
Idris: Yep. Even then. And I didn’t know why.
Anton: Do you still feel that way about the work?
Idris: Yep. I do. I do. I find it interesting and I think he’s an interesting bloke. He was - I mean, we’ve chatted a bit when he was telling me what to do and fall down here and tie this up but it seemed to me that it was as much - it wasn’t about the language of art. It was about using nature and, in a way, making stuff that was so much like nature there was no point in art. It didn’t always work out. Sometimes you look at it and some of the latest things he’s done with colour, which was so unnatural to the world, you think, yeah, yeah, this some really good design things in this and I can see the kind of - but it still seems to be sort of - I don’t know. There’s something really shallow about it at one level.
Anton: What about the rest of them, you know? The English? The Richard Longs and the idea of engaging directly with that?
Idris: Yeah, well, I mean again I think that the problem for me is that, at their worst, you go out in the landscape and you pile up a lot of nice timber and you put a bit of colour on it and I’m being facetious to some degree. These guys are bright enough. I mean that’s not the point. But there’s a sense where it’s a problem of that you are into being so little into nature that nature is actually much more bloody interesting on its own without you intervening. I mean, you know - and also some of those guys have not got anywhere and some of them have moved on and so they’re starting it ignore about the kind of language that you deal with that and how you deal with it because that’s an invented thing. It’s about human beings and how we intervene and what that means and the language of that is not just a formal arrangement. It’s something to do with belief system and looking, thinking. All that we are as human beings and we’re not just an intellect or we’re not just a soul or whatever term you want to use but we’re not just a body. All of those things come into it and then, of course, when you go to a corroboree, which I’ve only been to one which was really authentic where you’ve got the painting on the body, you’ve got the dance, you’ve got the atmosphere, you’ve got the painting in the sand, you’ve got the marks in the sand. I mean that’s holistic in not a groovy way but in a true somehow and that relates much back to early Christian kind of thought where, instead of the kind of the Catholic intrusion sort of pushing the spiritual separate from the material and the bodily things, that this is all one and indigenous people, by and large, have that same kind of thinking, so again, it gets back to how you see the world philosophically in one sense. But you’ve got to use the - the language is something - I mean, you can’t get away from your western art. Again, you can’t choose to be primitive and some of this stuff becomes close to primitive and in fact I go out into the outback and a lot of our rivers flow once every five years and occasionally have a bloody big flood and the timber will build up around a beautiful ancient redwood tree which is every kind of shape. There’s holes in it. It’s a magnificent thing. The bark has beautiful lines in it. But for me to paint a red stick and stick in it is kind of - I think it denudes what it is to be a human being and inventive in a real sense of the word and also nature. I mean, it’s a real interesting kind of problem. So how do you -?
Anton: You’ve come out of this with a sense of an inability to match it though, as well.
Idris: Yes. Of course. Of course.
Anton: Which make me think of the question of representation being a reduction and what you choose to leave out.
Idris: Or it is and again -
Anton: The inability to re-represent something forcibly reduces it and so those choices you make about what you leave out and what you include become really telling.
Idris: Well, quite. But the interesting thing about all this is that there is something in this whole creative endeavour. I mean, Edna Everage would call it the spooky bits. And there is something, and most artists acknowledge it. Not just artists but musicians. Any creative person would acknowledge it on one level or another, that something happens in things which, if you’re not a complete egomaniac, you realise that you didn’t do. Something presents itself, you acquiesce to it or you say yes to it but you know that you were part of the thing but it presented itself to you. Picasso said, “Some people seek and I find.” Well, at one level, he might have been saying he’s a smart arse and he knows more than anyone else and, you know what? At one level, he did. But the other thing I think he’s actually saying it’s not about imposing this thing on it. It’s about waiting for that to present itself where you’re in a position to say yes to it.
Anton: Well, the other thing that interests me is the pre-perspectival representations of the landscape. You know, the Byzantine, or the very flat. There’s something about the sense of being in them that’s different to the perspectival space.
Idris: Yeah, it is.
Anton: And that sort of all-roundness of them.
Idris: Absolutely. I mean, in a lot of indigenous stuff here historically, those figures were continually gone over and touched up because reflected light and shimmer and all those things are connected with spirit, other than the material world, and so there’s - for me, it’s a fascinating connection which I’m just reading more about now and thinking about and seeing and hopefully I can talk to some indigenous guys to think more about that but you’re right. I mean there’s something about that where it relates to not just being a visual outsider and making an objective truth of something. I mean, that’s one of the problems. I mean, that’s where I started to really have to rethink what I was trying to do painting here is that I knew from, say, a western leftist position, a person who was a materialist who is actually saying no, this is not right. This is - I can’t describe what happened. Beauty doesn’t fit into the Marxist calendar or structure. And then you get here an Aboriginal people and their works are doing the same thing. They’re saying no, no, no, no, it’s not about just that. So that objective way of seeing things, renaissance and looking at the world as an object, all that sort of stuff. Occasionally - particularly when I’m in the outback, things happen which you can’t experience the world in those terms any more. Something else happens to you and you cannot deny something that happened in front of something - it’s like Martin Buber talking about [I-thou] *01:09:08. The kind of whole concept of objectifying things, it makes that thing an it, that thing an object which you own or you structure or you hold on to. The enlightenment did that to us. I mean -.
Anton: Which makes you think of the frame. Dealing with the frame.
Idris: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Anton: But also I notice a map over there and that discussion just makes me think about this idea of the aerial view and to what extent - how do you position your - or do you see that as the horizon? What’s the horizon doing?
Idris: Yeah, well, because you’re historically and in every other way. I mean, you know, and a lot of western painting is - professional landscape painting is based on a horizon which in many cases defines the form of background, foreground, middle ground or whatever the tradition is and then, when you see great artists using that, they - Morandi for instance. He would use it as a formal thing to make it a much more interesting picture because he’s trying to say there’s more to this than just - and so, if you repeat that line as a horizontal or vertical which just repeats the frame itself, you’re not actually creating an intention. You’re actually - what you’re doing is repeating the boring neutral bits that you’re actually supposed to be activating in some form or another, and you can see that in Cézanne. You can see that in any great composition and some of that has been based on idealised kind of arrangements. All the Fibonacci series. All that stuff. Which is, I mean there’s some real elements in that that work. I mean, they make for interesting composition but then you - I mean, I can only put it in experiential terms in a sense of having thought about this in some context. I mean, the context I would think about it is thinking about how indigenous people describe the land and their surroundings. Now, when I first started to go to the outback, an indigenous guy and a white ranger - I met these two guys - and they were both telling me about how indigenous people lived and what tools they made and stuff and they both showed me some different tools. I just thought they were bits of rock and they showed me how they made them and why they made them and how they fitted into spears and so, for about two years, I’d go to the outback and all I did was look down. I wandered, for weeks in some cases and then I realised there’s a whole world of making and materials and fireplaces and lived experience, but it was all about looking down. All about looking down. Because, if you’re starving to death and you’ve got to find a lizard that’s under a rock, you’ve got to actually find the track that leads to that rock.
Anton: Did that resonate with the Williams because he has a very high horizon in a lot of his work?
Idris: Yeah, he had problems with that and I understand and partly - and you can see the picture on my wall at the moment. It’s got no horizon at all. And there’s partly a formal reason for that in art terms which is, once you flatten out the thing, you’ve got a better chance of designing something without that problem of deep illusionistic space getting in the road or the horizon, so you get that, but you’re right. I mean, he was dealing with that and often some of the Pilbara series and some of the other things he just deleted that and it was like a hillside or whatever.
Anton: Do you ever work flat then?
Idris: Physically flat?
Idris: Who? Fred?
Anton: No, you.
Idris: Yeah, I do, because I mean I still use an easel but what I do now, which I wouldn’t have done before, is I might go out with a little board, like a nineteenth century artist, thinking about Berger again, and sit in the fluff up there, but I don’t paint what’s in front of me. I paint what’s all around me. I’m trying to talk of - because the thing about time, I mean, one of the things that Matisse did formally was he eliminated light source which was still unsung formally. What he did, those innate great pictures, there is no light source. That changed the whole western cannon and for me that was - when I understood, it gave me enormous freedom. But, I also realise that, in his painting and in others, the shadow was a very interesting shape and you could do anything you liked with it, like clouds or water. You could manipulate it to hell and it still somehow resonated with those kind of things and so now I often use shadows, different light sources, which talk about different times of the day. In fact, I’ve done pictures called - shadows at different times of the day, so it allows you to talk about being in the same spot looking at the stars at night. Get there and sit there in the morning. See the world change, the moon come up at night. Every - so I don’t have to sit in front of - I don’t have to do a Monet and say I’m going to be here for an hour and paint the light on this or the light on that or at different times of the day and - not that they’re not great pictures but I’m freed from that, partly because Aboriginal people see the world differently and I can use that or make sense of that and also philosophically I’m closer to that belief system than the objective kind of way. Not that that’s bad or wrong. You need it. I mean, if someone - you know, I’d say to my students, “If someone’s going to be - if I got a brain tumour, I don’t want someone thinking about, ‘Ooh, I think we could do a much more creative way of getting this out. Why don’t we do this or just try this now? Oh no, it’s a failure.’” You want them to be terribly objective and very concentrated on a particular way of thinking and knowing and dealing with this thing. But that’s not what we’re talking about, are we? We’re talking about art and architecture and how it functions.
Anton: So the map. Coming back to the map. That’s interesting because again that - and what you said about the Aboriginal work; that way of working downwards and on a flat surface.
Idris: Well, Pollock worked like that. He worked like an American Indian sitting on the ground. I mean, yeah, and I do now. I have the thing there and use it and I paint something on it for a while and then I throw it on the ground and then I have five or six of these boards and I’ve been looking at and sometimes I’d be painting them on the ground, sometimes painting up. I don’t think I’ve consciously sort of said, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do,” but I can see, for indigenous people, sitting there working around it, it is a - I haven’t been - I mean, I’m still -.
Anton: Is that up or down or <over talk> *01:16:58.
Idris: That’s right. I’m still western enough to see top, bottom, right and left and I’m still western enough to see left to right rather than the Chinese or whatever. I mean, I don’t want to deny that. What I’m interested in is marrying these two extraordinary things together and making another new amalgam. That’s what I’m really interested in. Whether I can do that. I think I actually am doing it but whether I can do it sufficiently to make any difference, who knows.
Anton: But, without necessarily romanticising either.
Idris: Well yeah. I mean, look; one of the things it just reminded me of an experience which gave me some idea of this thinking. Not only looking down but how indigenous people deal with the world around them, for instance. Now, a lot of the stuff I like is stuff like I’ve got <unclear> *01:17:49. I like <unclear> *01:17:51. I like stuff that is representational in some degree but patterns and design and texture and all sorts of things and I was -.
Anton: Is that something you look for? Pattern?
Idris: Yeah, I do, I do in a, I do in a sense. Yes. Because I’m interested in how many ways you can make a variation of surface which might suggest or talk about stuff.
Anton: And is that because of this flattening tendency or it’s a repetition?
Idris: Yeah. It’s all of those things. I mean, one is continually kind of questioning the language that you use and so - I mean, in this particular case - this was years ago - the first trip I had, I was taking students from Rhode Island School of Art and Design and so forth out to the outback and to Kakadu particularly, so that was a pretty interesting experience on its own right, but one of the first trips I had to the museum in Darwin, they have a lot of very beautiful work from the islands off Australia - still part of Australia - the <unclear> *01:18:58 or some of the other islands up there. And I was looking at their crosshatching, things like dots, marks, pattern. What is a pattern? There are natural occurring patterns. I mean, this probably gets back to talking about earth works and that or no, it’s - is a pattern different than a design? Is a design different than a pattern and are some things purely a human invention and yes, there’s things in nature which have pattern-like <unclear> *01:19:32 but they’re not the same and how do we deal with that and all these questions floating round and then I’d seen these indigenous works with lots of points and marks and dashes and texture and pattern and whatever and then I walk out of the sliding doors of the museum, because it was bloody hot outside and air conditioned inside, and I just about trod on a really beautiful skink, little lizard, flat tale, whatever, and I thought, “Someone’s going to tread on it,” so I picked it up and I looked at it and the whole thing was an intricate lace of patterns and crosshatching and so forth.
Anton: It just makes me think, that discussion, about that role of pattern and to what extent Aboriginal work is illustrating a formed idea, and I don’t know this is probably a question; whether they’re actually illustrating a formed notion and to what degree that contrasts with maybe what you’re doing, which is an endless - makes me think of Jasper Johns saying, “I do something, then I do something else, then I do something else.” It’s not starting out with a finished picture and then hatching it.
Idris: No, no, no. I don’t pre-conceive - it is. I don’t pre-conceive the thing. I mean, occasionally, like the one I’ve got on the wall here, I’ve sort of got an idea which I’ve played with a bit and luck - if it’s luckily - luckily after a while some of that remains and has some value or worth and interest and that’s a whole set of things in its own right but I don’t pre-conceive that and say, “This was my idea,” and, if I do do that, then, of course, what happens is I’m in trouble because I end up making a cliché of myself.
Anton: So do you look for something to, in a way, to trigger you on, the problems of -.
Idris: Yeah, I do, but often what I’m getting better at is allowing the picture. I mean, the way I can answer that, I think, is that, once upon a time when I used to go - I would go out and I’d stay out for a couple of weeks and paint and draw and do whatever I was doing. Wander around, look, be there. I would see things which I thought, “Wow, that’s fantastic. Look at that odd cloud or what a great tree. What great colour,” and I’d think, “I’ll try to remember that. I’ll remember that. I’ll remember that,” and I’d get back and I’d try to do something with that and it was just a joke. It was ridiculously stupid and horrible and clichéd, all that sort of stuff. And so then I would just say, “Well okay, I think this could be about this. This colour could jettison or bring up or -,” and I would do that and then things might present themselves in that making and thinking and doing that would need to - ah, that looks like that experience of being in that place at that time at no particular time but - and it would start to authenticate itself in some way. So the creative process, then, is, in some ways, giving up control and allowing things to present themselves and acquiesce. Well, acquiesce is probably too weak a word but saying yes to it. Affirming that this is the way it should go.
Anton: It comes back to that editing, doesn’t it? Knowing what to respond to and what not to - where the openings or where the avenues might be?
Idris: Yeah, I mean correspond - this is one of the words that early modernist painters talked about. I mean, sometimes it is kind of put into too much early American and <unclear> *01:23:34 and spraying things around and just - and that’s become nearly a cliché of a cliché now and young artists are sort of going back to some of that and they’re doing this stuff. It’s like you can’t do this without knowing and being and you can’t be a ‘60s hippy in a way that - you can’t choose to be that now. You have to put it in some other context and think about it in some other way and we want to know what you think and what’s all that.
Anton: You know what interests me? You mentioned this somewhere in passing about this idea of memory and <over talk> *01:24:15.
Idris: Well, I mean, I know that I cannot memorise stuff. It has to come from making a painting. The painting is the memory and that’s where I think I’m coming close -.
Anton: And you don’t know you’ve remembered it until you’ve painted it.
Idris: That’s right. And that’s where I think indigenous people are also coming from because they talk about a song line and story stuff but it’s being in your country then the memories come, or being away from it because you’ve been pushed off it or denied it, then the memories are there.
Anton: So does that mean you should be painting Kernel when you’re sitting in -?
Idris: No, no, because Kernel is - you know, it’s an urbanised, by and large - it’s all the things that I don’t want to deal with. I want to be out there where my imagination and my - I’m free to be - in some senses, I’m not sure what I’m free to be but I know it’s not happening in my studio or -. I mean, I painted - I mean, look, if you go back to, say, I don’t know, 1910 to 1930 in France, a lot of those early young painters, what did they paint? They didn’t know what to paint. They weren’t going to paint nymphs and shepherds come away. They weren’t going to be Poussin. They painted the view out the window. The window itself; the curtains blowing; the girl sitting there; the view there - I mean, you know, and what we’re talking about at the moment. I mean, Matisse had a studio in Nice looking down that promenade at all this shit that’s just happened to the world, painting all these beautiful things. So he set it up, in a sense, and my set-up is out there and my experiences which have been -.
Anton: How long have you been going there now?
Idris: I don’t know. Twenty-eight years. Something like that. I was going out there when I was a youngish - I mean, I couldn’t have taken in - if I’d gone out when I was younger - I mean it’s all to do with going away, coming back, seeing it for what it is or trying to see it for what it is, going to the Kimberleys in the last few years, flying over the Kimberleys. You’re talking about - one of the most significant couple of pictures I did recently were Kimberleys pictures where, for the first time over, in some cases a short period. I’m just thinking about it in a longer term. I mean, coming back from Europe, right, flying over Uluru and flying over some of the areas which you recognised from other pictures and photographs and all that sort of stuff from a bloody big commercial you see -.
Anton: It’s remarkable.
Idris: But then recently, flying in a smaller plane, closer, and then a helicopter over the same area and then walking on it, man that’s a whole -.
Anton: That’s interesting.
Idris: Different ballgame and seeing, in some cases, a helicopter, you’re seeing it far too close to the cliff face than I want to see it and then slightly above it and then higher above it and trying to make pictures with all of that experience in it. I mean that’s -
Anton: Being in it.
Idris: Yeah. And that was really a revelation and I can see, for instance, in this country, Syd Nolan in 1956 having his first flight in a smaller plane across desert areas and all of a sudden the whole world changed for him as well and early photographers getting on to that as well and - because I saw that when I came back from Europe and thinking, “Well, how do I make sense,” and then I’d go out to the outback, go out to Mutawintji then I’d meet indigenous guys that they’re telling you a whole world of different stories. I mean, there’s a million stories.
Anton: Yes, okay.
Anton: Thank you.
Idris: Thank you. It’s been really interesting stuff. My brain’s jumping all over the place. Thank you.
Conversation: Idris Murphy + Anton James
Audio recording: Anton James
Audio editing: Angela Grant
Website content: Matthew Kneale
Funding: RMIT University School of Architecture and Design SRC Grant