Jan Murray: Meticulous Pleasures

With equal parts contemplation and humour, Jan Murray gives status to the common puffer jacket.

Words: Sean Lowry

Jan Murray’s self-declared approach to painting is deceptively simple. “Basically, the pleasure principle rules in my practice,” she says. On closer inspection, however, her philosophy is clearly grounded in a deeply considered relationship with the languages of painting.

The Melbourne-based artist and retired academic’s work stands as an exemplar of painting’s unyielding capacity to maintain its own categories of medium and discourse. Across a time often characterised by outsourced artistic labour and conceptually driven projects, Murray reminds us of the value of skilled realism and careful attention to the minutia of everyday experience.

Realism in painting is historically connected to the truthful representation of subjects via mimesis. It is here that Murray knows that we can be seduced, albeit with a twist. Her meticulous and exacting verisimilitudes both impersonate their subject and reperform the pleasures of virtuosic labour located in a daily ritual of production. And it is in this daily ritual of pleasure in paint that she identifies and follows hunches that slowly form a coherent body of work.

“I don’t necessarily work toward an exhibition but rather accrue enough work over a period of time to confidently identify a conceptual focus, then arrange for an exhibition,” she explains.

Murray’s life and career reflect a curious amalgamation of influences and experiences, with each period marked by shifts in the artistic atmosphere. “The ‘80s was a time of discovery or libidinous, unbridled expressiveness,” she recalls. By contrast, “the ‘90s and the early 2000s was a more reflective time, when the exuberance of the ‘80s was replaced by a more introspective examination of painting as object.”

Her upcoming show, Figura, exemplifies her meticulous artistry, offering viewers an experience that seamlessly negotiates immersive engagement and broader worldly understandings. “This series has been in gestation for some time,” she says.

Her muse for this series? A seemingly mundane article of clothing. In the isolation of seemingly endless Covid lockdowns in Melbourne in 2020, Murray found inspiration in the commonplace. In her daily walking window, she was, “struck by the ubiquity of the puffer jacket”. This fascination led to an exploration of “the peculiarities of the puff as an embodied expressive entity in form and materiality.”

Her long-time gallerist Charles Nodrum, who has represented Murray in eight solo shows since 1999, adds an insightful art-historical layer to her work.

“These life-size garments, some full-length, others three-quarter length, remind me of those grandiose depictions of kings and emperors dressed to the point where the person seems to have disappeared behind their silks and satins,” he says. “Murray seems to turn this around: by barring the face, she seems, paradoxically, to emphasise the human presence.”

Kate Nodrum, Charles’ daughter and Gallery Manager, identifies a significant mutually informing tension in her work: “Her skill for trompe l’oeil painting lies not only in her technical handling – the brushwork is incredibly fine and precise—but in a subtle sense of humour.”

Murray’s work offers us a pause, a moment of reflection in the continuum of life, asking us to ponder what is real and what is illusory. While Murray plays into our “persistent craving for immediacy,” as she puts it, she also reminds us that the allure of her paintings is just the starting point.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 106, October-December 2023. 


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