John Murchie at the Owens Art Gallery, Sackville

By Jon Claytor

When I first walked into the Owens Art Gallery to have a look at the 117 works in John Murchie’s retrospective À rebours, the work seemed enigmatic and difficult to understand. I saw diagram-like works on paper from the seventies exploring the idea of a repeated line, found objects layered in paint debating the idea of painting versus sculpture, and many works, from duck paintings to grid paintings, exploring the effect of a system of chance on aesthetics. Or were they? I knew I was missing something, but what?

John Murchie, Saturday, December 27, 2014 (Triptych), 2015-2020, acrylic on newsprint (photo: Mathieu Léger)

Co-curator (along with Felicity Tayler) Emily Falvey explained to me that Murchie’s process-based work is always doing two things at once and that helped me see the work could be exactly what it appeared to be and at the same time something completely different. It could be minimal and complex. Conceptual and beautiful. Painting and sculpture. Vibrant and austere. Whimsical and calculating. Humorous and stoic. And that’s just the beginning. This work, often centered around repetition and a systematic approach to mark making, subtly spirals and unravels, quietly undermining the attempt at unity and structure in its concept.

Is it the attempt to create a system of ordering chaos or a critique of that system by showing its inevitable flaws? We seem to have two answers to every question the work raises. You see, John Murchie is a visual philosopher. He was an influential part of the conceptual art scene in 1970’s Halifax and he says of the conceptual movement of those days, “I don’t think that got exhausted.” His work proves the point as it creates more questions the more time you spend with it.

John Murchie, Duck Decoy, Paint Portrait #4, 2001, acrylic on canvas (photo: Owens Art Gallery)

“Paint’s essential element is that it covers something,” says Murchie when I ask him about layering in his work. He uses paint to cover many things: the squares in his grid paintings, tins of smoked mussels, the interiors of boxes, and the covers of art magazines. With each application of paint he alters the meaning and the appearance of the support. His egalitarian use of materials inserts his work into a larger conversation with society. When he paints over art magazines he is in conversation with contemporary art. Painting on wooden shims connects his work to the community of trade workers. Using duck imagery places his contemporary art practice firmly in the context of Sackville, or, as he calls it, “the heart of the heart off the heart.”

John Murchie, The Secret Life of John Murchie’s Hammer, 1992, found mirror and photograph (photo: Roger J. Smith)

For the last thirty years Murchie has been living and working (as a gallery director, curator, writer, teacher, farmer, cook, and artist) in a small rural town with a small university. His work is at once about the international contemporary art scene and about the specific place he is located. A place that, like John, is obsessed with ducks which appear in his work and all over town. Falvey told me she sees his practice as a critique of hierarchy and of “inequality and self-importance,” adding, “he might have a different take.” When I asked the artist if he sees his work as being a critique of hierarchy, he answers, “I don’t usually think of it as critiquing anything particularly. Okay. I mean, sometimes I obviously do…”  His answer, like his work, is a contrast of opposites.

Graeme Patterson, John Murchie, 2013, mixed-media puppet (collection of John Murchie; photo: Roger J. Smith)

I asked Falvey why she thought it was important to do a retrospective on Murchie now. She talked about how his work was incredibly influential, from the seventies to the present, but may have been overlooked. She mentioned his community involvement, mentoring young artists, and his work at the local artist-run center in building an arts culture in Sackville, which could also be seen as a part of his art practice.

The exhibit highlights this aspect of his life’s work by including artworks paying homage to Murchie by artists Erin Brubacher, John Haney, Micah Lexier, Deborah Margo, Graeme Patterson, Felicity Tayler, and Tara K. Wells. Falvey also mentioned what his work did for her as a young student. She said it showed her, “I’m not alone. You can do this too.” Perhaps that is the unifying principle of the work, both in the studio and the community: the idea that looking at the world and examining it isn’t something that only the elite can do, and that wherever you are, it is “the heart of the heart of the heart.”

John Murchie: À rebours continues until April 23.
Owens Art Gallery:
The gallery is accessible.

Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick