Craig Murray-Orr, Landscape 2, watercolour and gouache on paper, 26 x 17.5 cm
Craig Murray-Orr was born in 1942, in Lower Hutt on the southern edge of New Zealand's North Island. He studied at the Ilam School of Art in the 1960's and since 1968 has lived in North London. Two thirds of his life then has belonged to the edge of Hampstead Heath rather than to 'the land of the long white cloud' but it is early memories of a genuinely rough country that have guided his forty year career.
At the centre this exhibition, his first for nearly ten years, are a group of twenty small landscape paintings. They are watercolours, at least in origin, but laced with gouache and stained, rubbed, scrubbed and bruised into being. The landscape is never geographically specific, but mixed from childhood recollections and more recent travels in the deserts of India and North Africa: the end result a depiction of an emotional or mental state, rather than a physical specific of place. Velvet blacks, deep purples, greys and greens form visions of austerity: bleak and empty, but magnificent.
Something of this same quality distinguishes the mahogany sculptures that accompany the paintings. Three massive guns dominate the gallery: simplifications of Nineteenth century rifles carved from single pieces of wood, their ebonised forms pared right down to capture the essence of their subject with the spare, sharp elegance of near abstraction. The largest of them Tribute to Florence Baker, celebrates the spirited wife of the Victorian explorer, Samuel Baker. Their relationship started unconventionally (he bought her in a Balkan slave market) and continued in the same vein. Unusually for the time she practiced her marksmanship, became a crack shot, and twice saved his life with a well-aimed bullet. In Murray-Orr's tribute the prone form of woman and gun merge into one, her skirts flowing from the rifle's stock.
In the most recent sculpture, begun in 2002 and finished last month, seven clumps of grass bend in the wind. Like the guns, it is a testament to the pull of simplicity over complexity, but also (being nine years in the making) to Murray-Orr's refusal to compromise. In his own words "the work was conceived simply as a breath of wind. The paintings that go with it describe to me the wild, arid, high landscapes I grew up in where I felt that wind. The work is nowhere specific. I spend time in desolate places to feed my soul not to sketch or take notes, and the paintings are visions of land formed by volcanoes, earthquakes, sediment, heat, cold, wind and water - not man. They are pure and potentially dangerous".
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