On, In, and Around the Line: An Interview with John Murchie
Keeley Haftner: Over the years you’ve inhabited the role of an artist, a critic, a teacher, a librarian, and a civic activist. Let’s begin in the early part of your art career back in the 1970s. That was when you began your twenty-year stint at the then internationally renowned Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was also when the school was very much in its stride. At that time, Garry Neill Kennedy was at the helm and engaging a pretty impressive roster of visiting artists through The Press and the lithography workshop. Can you talk about your experience there?
John Murchie: I was there from 1972 until 1990 when my partner Gemey Kelly and I moved here to Sackville, New Brunswick for her directorship with the Owens Art Gallery. I came in the midst of NSCAD’s heyday, but also as it was beginning to fade. As you say, the lithography workshop and the visiting artist program were well established by then, but The Press was only in its infancy.
KH: It was a bit of a conceptualist paradise at that time, and it seems to me that The Press was especially exciting then. As I recall it published books for and around artists like Michael Snow, Steve Reich, Gerhard Richter, and Yvonne Rainer, among others. And of course the lithography workshop was responsible for incredible original prints by artists like Lawrence Weiner, Joyce Wieland, John Baldessari, Dan Graham, Claus Oldenberg and Eric Fischl, to name a few…
John Baldessari, “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art”, Lithograph, composition. 1971. Image ©MoMA.
JM: I think The Press was more self consciously trying to be of the time than the lithography workshop was. Garry had begun to replace staff with faculty for whom it became known about five years prior to my arrival, but of course he continued to bring in artists in all through the ‘70s and ‘80s while I was there. But as the Director of the Library, I was always on the periphery. I had specific skills that came out of my background in English literature and philosophy, which I applied to my work as both an artist and a librarian. But the school was quite hierarchical during the NSCAD heydays. Probably the only person they’d have paid attention to less than a librarian like myself in that era was a woman!! And of course when it became clear that this problematic attitude had to change, [snaps fingers] it changed.
KH: It strikes me that the ideas you are thinking through in your art practice have been deeply influenced by the kind of conceptualism practiced by Kennedy and those of the avant-garde who engaged with NSCAD while you were there.
JM: “Thinking through” might be too strong of a term. [Laughs] But yes, that’s true. I grew up outside of New York City in the 1940s and 50s when Abstract Expressionism was the be-all-end-all. It never made any sense to me, particularly, and to this day I haven’t felt capable of responding to it. My sister was formally trained at art school, but as I mentioned my background was not in visual art but in philosophy and literature. Still, when I got to NSCAD in 1972, I had been making things for some time. Mostly sculptures. And then I encountered Gerald Ferguson, who was Garry Kennedy’s behind-the-scenes guy. At that stage Jerry’s work was very conceptually driven, and he had been in the famous Information exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art around ’71. That show included pretty well-known artists like David Askevold, John Baldessari and Sol LeWitt, who of course all had ties to NSCAD as well, though Jerry was the only painter in that show. I responded to his work quite a lot, and it was the first time that making artwork ever really made sense to me. So to this day it’s still kind of the backbone of my work in lots of ways.
KH: Yes, and I would say I also see that backbone in your performance work, which also often engaged your background in literature. They seem to have “recipes” in their descriptions like much of Sol LeWitt’s work, as do many of your paintings. Can you describe some of those works?
JM: I will if I can remember them! [Laughs]
John Murchie, “see what you think”, Performance (attempted shredding of the estimated weight of the Dalhousie Art Gallery’s archives in surplus material), Dalhousie Art Gallery, 2012. Later iteration (shredding of the estimated weight of the entire history of Art in America magazine in street and junk mail) performed at AC Institute, NYC, 2015. Photo courtesy of Dalhousie Art Gallery.
It was always important to me that performance work exist in the moment, so only a few have ever been documented, like a piece I did for the Nickel Art Museum in Calgary as part of the M:ST Mountain Standard Time Performative Arts Festival which was recorded simply because they recorded all of the work that was performed. As for “conceptual recipes,” I tended always to have titles that were self-descriptive, after having gone the short historic period where everything was Untitled. So, whatever title is pretty much tells you in some way whatever you are about to engage with – if it’s called Four-Sided Blue Box then it’s probably a four-sided blue box. [Laughs] When I did a performance called Opening.Open.Closed at Eye Level gallery in Halifax in 1980 the gallery was on the second floor of a building on Barrington Street. They always used napkins and a paper cups for the openings. So I covered the entire floor of one room with paper napkins and the other room with paper cups. There was a glass door so you could see into one room without opening the door, but not the other. For the opening I managed to get the cups right up to the door, and when you looked in it was quite beautiful. I mean it was stupid, and I’ve always been interested in that – stupid throwaway materials that in repetition can be quite beautiful. But the crux was that to go inside the room and experience it, you had to destroy it, because as soon as you opened the door there was a nuclear-bomb-esque chain reaction kind of thing. They just went pluuuum. And then followed the traces where people would walk because it would continue to get disturbed as they did so. But the pleasing perfection of it all was destroyed as soon as you opened the door. It was actually Ron Shuebrook who went on to be the president of the Ontario College of Art and Design who first opened the door – much to his chagrin, because he knew what would happen. Anyway, there were photographs of the rooms at the end of the evening which were developed into this little document, but the original negatives that were my proposal to Eye Level have been destroyed. So all that is left is the publication, two prints from those negatives, and that’s it. Gone. Garbage. Hopefully by now, forty years later, those cups and napkins have biodegraded into the world somewhere, or been recycled into something else.
KH: Yes, they are probably long since soil, or perhaps in a landfill somewhere, since it was 1980! But certainly not in a museum or archive, at any rate.
JM: Exactly. At the time I was interested in the question of where the art was. That’s the whole issue, if you’re a naïf like myself. I mean artistically naïve, in the sense of not being academically trained in art and so on. Another good example of that line of questioning is a piece that I did for the Khyber Centre for the Arts when they invited me to produce a work. They had this little closet in their space that I lined with tinfoil, put in an incredibly bright light, and closed the door. If you wanted to see the work you would have to open the door, at which point you would be blinded so you couldn’t see anything. And people would immediately shut the door because it was annoying… not annoying so much as actually blinding, really. So once again, you were kept from the work by the work.
KH: It seems to me that a lot of this work was connected by withholding – like a desire to suspend a certain beautiful moment or a direct experience of a thing. There is some sort of mediation there.
JM: I’d never thought of it in that way, but I suppose there’s truth in that. I guess for me I’m interested in how your sense of one thing is changed in proximity to something else. For me this mostly comes out in painting. For example, if I put a coat of paint down on top of a white thing then the white thing becomes a green thing, and then if I put another coat on top of the green thing it becomes a red thing, but it’s still a green thing and a white thing and a red thing. It’s just that you can’t see it. That’s one of paint’s principle features – its ability to disguise itself.
John Murchie, untitled studio experiment, 2017.
KH: Certainly this kind of optical deception and chromatic depth is present in the work of op artists like Bridget Riley, or even the black monochromes of Ad Reinhardt, but your work tends to merge these cool but expressive experiential elements with your own subjectivity in a way that I find quite visceral, sometimes cheeky, but also moving. I’m thinking about your relationship to lines, in particular. Can you talk about your tattoos?
JM: They’re still there!
KH: [Laughs] Yes, well, in some ways they are only slightly less ephemeral than your paper cups and napkins, in the sense that you yourself are rather ephemeral in reference to geological or cosmic time…
JM: True. I honestly don’t remember how I began working with lines exactly, except that it began soon after I started working at NSCAD. My use of straight lines is probably another reflection of the fact that I was interested in making works in visual art but had no particular skills or training, and I also had no interest in gaining those skills. That compounded with my background literature and my interest in science and mathematics. As for the tattoos, they are artworks that I’ve had for twenty-two years now. Most of my life I’ve worked in some sort of job where I’m dressed with sleeves covering the majority of the work, so the question most people will wonder is how far up my body they go. There is an implication that they continue.
KH: I’m looking at them now – they are on the center of your forearms, beginning at the wrist and ending at the elbow. I remember you saying once that one was black and the other blue, though of course now the black one is blueing, and the blue one is blueing further, which is also interesting in terms of tracking time. Lines are of course related to a human sense of time as a linear concept, and certainly your continued use of the line connects much of your work through time.
John Murchie, “Black and Blue”, 1996. Photos courtesy of Gemey Kelly.
JM: When I got them done in the mid-‘90s, there weren’t that many people around with tattoos. Those from my father’s generation who had been to war certainly had some, but aside from that they weren’t that prevalent, but were starting to be. I’ve always been interested in how a sculpture can be a painting and vice versa. I still see them as my drawings, basically. On the other hand, I’m obviously a three-dimensional thing, so its sculptural, and also I see it as an ongoing performance, until my last breath. It’s the only way I can give my body real value. I have offered this artwork to the National Gallery of Canada. I told them they couldn’t have it until I passed away. And then, they would have to make a decision as to whether they preferred to see it as a drawing, and skin me, or see it as a sculpture.
KH: And embalm you?
JM: [Laughs] Yes. It’s their choice. I see both possibilities as perfectly adequate and true, but obviously you have to make a choice. Curatorially speaking, I think they would make the better choice than I would. From my perspective, it’s one of my most successful works.
KH: I’m led to think of Santiago Sierra’s 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People from 2000, which of course was done much later and garnered a lot of negative attention for the obvious problematics – paying prostitutes the price of their choice substance to be tattooed across their backs as some sort of unit. Obviously your work is exceedingly different, but I can’t help but bring Sierra to mind. Both works, regardless of their extreme difference, involve an attempt at geometry against the fleshiness of the human body, and demand that the living body be seen as an art object.
JM: Yes well even in my case not everyone has been empathetic with the work either, like my mother, for example. [Laughs] She thought it was the most stupid thing she’d heard in her life. Conversations around their utility come up most often in hospitals when my sleeves are rolled up to do blood work and the like. I guess they look suspiciously like the surgical marks doctors draw when they’re getting ready to cut you open.
KH: And then some uninformed surgeon comes in and gives you a new laceration you weren’t expecting! [Laughs] So after NSCAD, you were the Coordinator of Struts Gallery & Faucet Media Arts Centre Sackville, New Brunswick for ten years, but have since retired. It seems to me that these days you’ve mostly turned your focus toward painting.
John Murchie, “Crossword Painting, The Globe and Mail (December 27, 2014)”, acrylic on newsprint, third panel of a triptych, 2014-Present.
JM: Yes, well, that’s probably just my age and lack of energy! I have been doing crossword paintings for about 20-years now. For these works I take the full-page crossword from the Globe and Mail and use it as the basis for a painting. Number one will be blue, number two is green, and so on. The colours are assigned arbitrarily, but every once in a while you’ll have to make decisions because, for example, in the case of the number twelve, it is both one and two. They become grids of colour where the crossword would be, and once they’re full I move on to the next.
KH: So they’re almost like visual permutations?
JM: Yes, permutations. And then my other paintings have been getting progressively smaller. I work on small birch board supports that feel like objects, so if I want the work to stand like a sculpture or go on the wall like a painting, it can do either. Francesca Valente, a curator from Toronto, asked me to contribute to the project IMAGO, Luciano Benetton Collection. I was given a very small – 10 x 12 cm! – stretched canvas. I decided to explore my fascination with the negative line that emerges between two painted forms. This stupid little thing has always fascinated me. The work had four sides and four colours on top of one another in various sequences to produce six straight lines, which is Any Way You Look At It: Six Straight Lines. No matter which way you rotate it, it’s still the same damn thing. And since, like you said, the work is in some way a series of permutations, I have also been making work that explores this directly by using a grid and a number generator that will tell me however many colours I am using in a specific sequence.
KH: In addition to treating paintings as sculptures, some of your pieces also work sculpturally with paint. In these works paint is used as layering device that reminds me a bit of the work of Eric Cameron, though rather than coating the object to abstract it, you layer the interior or edges of an object and keep the external nature of the thing itself exposed. An acting of filling or framing rather than obscuring. Are you still producing work of that nature?
JM: Yes, Struts used to give out small, brown boxes for their fundraising auction Sweetest Little Thing. It’s fundraiser event that commissions artists – both locals like Graeme Patterson and Leah Garnett, and past exhibitors like Micah Lexier and Amalie Atkins – to produce works for Valentine’s Day. I have three of those boxes, and I don’t know how long I’ve been doing it but for a number of years I’ve just been going around and around the interior of each with acrylic, very intuitively with no predetermined colours or planning. The logical finish for the work is when the box is full of paint. They are pretty extraordinary.
KH: And are they nearing full yet?
John Murchie, “Untitled”, 2010-Present.
JM: I think there’s a fair ways left to go. But they’re very heavy now. I have a feeling that all of a sudden I’ll probably know that’s as far as I want to take it. Because the boxes are made of cardboard they’ve begun to bend inward from the sides against the tension of the paint. More recently I’ve begun working with two wooden boxes of the same scale and I’ll be curious to see what that’s like, because the surface on the inside is kind of rough and that of course effects the texture of the paint as it’s layered on. At the top edge there is kind of a little lip, so even from the time I put the first stroke down it began catching there, just a tiny bit, but it only takes a tiny bit before the effect starts multiplying. I’m interested in how I’ve got these identical objects and I’ve been doing the same thing to them but the outcomes are extremely different. You’re more of the scientist than I am, you might have some ideas as to how this might happen.
KH: It’s hard to make things identical in this world, even when DNA is replicating itself!
JM: Yes, everything one does is somehow related to those kinds of physical and scientific facts about the world that we live in.
KH: You’ve had the honour of being one of the few or only art critics in a small artistic community – not just Sackville, but Atlantic Canada for that matter, and even the whole of Canada tends to have very few. Coming from Chicago I know this can be difficult even in larger communities, which in reality are never as large as they seem. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a critic in a very small artistic context?
JM: It’s hard. I stopped doing the reviews. I was writing criticism between the late ‘70s and ‘90s, primarily for Arts Atlantic and Visual Art News in Halifax, but also for Canadian Art magazine and Parachute. Being critical was difficult but necessary, because quite often I had to write about work that really wasn’t any good. Too often it took me right to the edge of the role, which I did not like. These are still works that someone has put a fair bit of blood sweat and tears into, so it’s hard not to feel a little icky about it. But it has to be done. Many of the people I was writing about were people I knew very directly – you know, it’s not like I was writing about Jeff Koons or some superstar artist whom I’d never see, so I wouldn’t have to worry if I said “this sucks” because he’s probably not going to come over here and whack me on the head or something. But once for example I wrote a fairly critical review of the work of Thaddeus Holownia, who I see fairly regularly, which was not an easy thing to do. I still stand behind what I wrote, even twenty years later, but still. It’s different to be invited to write for a catalogue or in a similar context, because in that case if I’ve agreed to do it than I’ve probably got some sympathy for the work I’m writing about.
KH: Right, but aside from having to look the person you’ve reviewed in the eye, wouldn’t you say that an art community benefits from criticism, regardless of the scale? And if not you, someone who I think of as a sort of thick-skinned and frank person, then who?
JM: Oh yes, I think it benefits. I got enough of a reputation that at some point I was at an event and an artist who I’d written about (who was quite drunk at the time) came up to me and said, “You know everyone here hates you?” Luckily, I had a thick enough skin and quick enough wit to reply, “Everybody?” [Laughs] But, it is both necessary and difficult. I wrote a bad review of the work of a friend of mine for a show he had at the Owens Gallery, and I felt kind of bad about doing it, but the show had problems. The review got published and low and behold within a few months I got not one, but several letters from people saying that they appreciated what I’d written. Those letters took me a long distance toward making me comfortable in my own skin moving forward. I don’t see much in the way of criticism being written in the North Atlantic today; there’s a kind of tact that people take these days in which they cling to the theoretical so they don’t have to say anything, really. Not anything meaningful. Mostly we get a fair bit of, “it’s just really great, so wonderful, the colours are really bright, it’s great…”
KH: But of course as the director of the only artist-run in a coastal community and as someone who spent a good deal of time engaging in local town council, community is obvious really important to you, which could be harder to balance as the local critic. You ran for mayor in 2012 – can you talk about that?
JM: That wasn’t the first time I’ve went for public office. You’re right to say that I’ve been fairly active in my community and I think that more artists and artist-run centres should be, honestly. There is totally no question that there is more consciousness amongst the non-artist community in Sackville about what goes on in the arts community because of our participation with that wider community. There just is. And of course through that participation I gain more consciousness about some other kinds of concerns that I generally don’t pay attention to, or take for granted. Anyway I had been urged to run for town council before, and in 2012 it turned out that the day before the nominations closed there was only one person out there running, someone who was not a very interesting person, I thought. A pretty shameful democracy, if you ask me. I didn’t think I could beat him, but I didn’t want him to see him win just because no one else cared enough to run.
KH: That’s great!
JM: Yes well, by the next morning when nominations closed, there were four people running! In another election in Halifax, I became fairly active in my campaign, going door to door and speaking with people about issues and concerns. I was totally destroyed by the woman who was the incumbent, who even left town during the campaign. I went around and knocked on virtually every one of the 30,000 applicable voter doors, while she relaxed in Barbados or something. [Laughs] I didn’t really have much of a platform so much as the feeling that there must be other ways of doing some things. There must be other ways of paying more homage to some issues that are generally speaking important, like the environment and so on. I’m usually able to stir things up to some extent. But that’s not much to run on.
KH: But in this case you would have wanted to be mayor, it wasn’t just about forming an opposition?
JM: No, absolutely. I wouldn’t have gone through all that if I hadn’t wanted to be mayor.
KH: Do you think you’d run again, or was 2012 “Murchie for Mayor” the last time?
JM: No, by the time it was all done I would be seventy-eight years old, and there are a lot of other things that I want to do with my life other than whatever would be entailed there. Like paint, for example!
KH: And time is precious, so thank you for giving some of yours up to speak with me, John!
JM: So much fun! Any time.
John Murchie is a Canadian artist. You can find him where he lives, in Sackville, New Brunswick.