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Review: Idris Murphy’s exhibition at Drill Hall Gallery, Backblocks, is inspiring and lyrical

Sasha Grishin, Canberra Times, Published September 14. 2022. Updated 30 September 2022.

Idris Murphy: Backblocks. ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Kingsley Street, Acton. Until October 16.

Idris Murphy is a unique phenomenon in Australian art. His art predominantly involves painting country – the sparsely inhabited “backblocks” that have a special resonance with the artist.

He has an idiosyncratic method of work with acrylic paints on board in the smaller paintings and with acrylic paints on aluminium with the larger works. Unlike artists who are concerned with a literal transcription of the landscape and are preoccupied with the passage of light and temporal appearances, Murphy paints the essence and spirit of the land. It is more accurate to say that he is painting country, in contrast to taking impressions of a landscape that he sees before him. He does not view himself as being outside the landscape, but as painting from within – he is part of the country that he paints.

This very large exhibition of his paintings is the largest survey of his work that we have seen in Canberra and tours to the Orange Regional Gallery and next year to the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney. Although it has a selection of a few pieces of his earlier work, it cannot be called a retrospective and has a focus on his paintings from the past decade. In some ways this is a pity, as Murphy is overdue for a retrospective exhibition that would include some of his quirky student work and the sophisticated explorations of colour from his years in London as well as a selection of his drawings, lithographs and his fascinating sculptural assemblages.

Murphy is predominantly a colourist – he adores Henri Matisse – and has devised his own peculiar palette. He was one of the earliest professional painters to embrace metallic paints and explains his conversion that when looking at a land full of gold, silver and copper colours, he felt that a certain authenticity could be achieved by painting with metal in your paint. The luminous radiating canvas Poussin and me at Hill End, 2003, simply resonates with rich flows of paint that are subtle, effective and possess a concentrated intensity.

Idris Murphy, Warnum. Picture: Supplied

Murphy enjoys sparseness with simplified blocked-in forms and sometimes scratched in designs. He describes himself as a “God botherer” and the spiritual dimension is never distant from the surface of his paintings. Although some of his canvases may be described as colour saturated, the colour is not there for show, it seems to intuitively belong. An intense painting on board, Warnum, 2011, seems to glow with desert heat and as you peer into the surface you notice elements of collage that have been incorporated into the surface to create an underlying structure.

Many artists, who like Murphy have developed a sense of visual intelligence, plunge into a repetitive hollow rhetoric where they repeat reliable tested strategies to create pleasing effects. In contrast, Murphy is happy to create awkward paintings in which you can see traces of hard-won victories in paint, struggles and strategic retreats. He does not paint from sketches, photographs or studies, but each painting is resolved on the hard surfaces. The smaller paintings are executed or at least commenced “en plein air”, while the larger works are done in the studio.

What is inspiring about this exhibition is that the artist, after painting and exhibiting professionally for many decades, treats each painting as a new challenge – as if seeing and discovering country for the first time. There is a boldness, freshness and toughness – from the hallucinatory intensity of Half Moon at the Nek, 2015, set in Turkey at Gallipoli, to the sombre but joyous Reflections and Shadows, Fowlers Gap, 2011.

This is an inspiring exhibition of great lyricism, musicality and good painting.

You can read the original article at

Featured image: Idris Murphy, Poussin and me at Hill End, 2003, acrylic on board. 120cmx120cm. Orange Regional Gallery, Chroma Collection. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Jim Cobb, 2013.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.