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Reviews/Visual Art

River of dreams, river of life

4 April 2022

Nada Murphy’s solo exhibition is a thoughtful examination of connections to water and country, and a pertinent statement for the times, writes Craig McKeough.

“Echoes of the River”: Nada Murphy ·
Mossenson Galleries, Subiaco · 

Nada Murphy’s “Echoes of the River” exhibition has been years in the making – not just in the physical act of creating this diverse collection – but in the long, slow process of observing, listening and understanding her subject matter and her place in it.

Murphy is an adventurous West Australian maker and something of a polymath, always eager to try something new. The result is an exhibition that brings together her well-honed skills in painting, kiln-formed glass and textile work – including dyeing, spinning, weaving and embroidery – in an expansive but ultimately cohesive display.

The thing that binds it is water, specifically the waterways in the upper reaches of the Avon River around the town of Beverley where the river takes its form amid expansive salt lakes. These waterways are pivotal to life in this area, both contemporary and ancient, and Murphy takes a considered approach to bringing the stories of place into her art.

The stories include those of the Ballardong Noongar people, the first European forays into this area and the contemporary interactions between people and country. Murphy achieves this through an investment of time, patience, research and talking to people who know the country best.

The result is a collection that seems to carry the signature of the place, with glasswork, woven vessels and paintings – both representative and abstract – all rich with the colours and motifs of the land.

A row of silk wall hangings dyed in shades of earthy browns and ochres
A mesmerising effect: ‘The Seasons’, Bush dyed embroidered silk panels, with chain and running couch stitch. Photo: Mossenson Galleries

In the case of some of these works, that signature is literal. A highlight of the exhibition is the group of six stunning large silk panel wall hangings, The Seasons, each imbued in colour from a different eucalyptus species from the Avon district and then embroidered with thread in similarly earthy colours. This work is the result of an intensive process of dye preparation, extracting colour from leaves, bark and nuts, and a long period of steeping. The Seasons provides a meaningful link between water and the trees that once dominated this landscape before the large-scale clearing for agriculture.

The panels are quite beautiful in themselves but the subtle shifts in colour and pattern achieved from the dyeing process, combined with the ruffling of the lightweight fabric in response to movements in the air, conjure a mesmerising effect, like ripples across the surface of the river.

glass bowl with a salt-like glaze in shades of cream, white and green
Reminiscent of human objects abandoned to the elements: ‘Riverbank & Lace’ pâte de verre vessel. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

The large oil on canvas works, View from the Peak, Quajabin and Looking Back from the Crossing, are strongly realised landscapes of local landmarks, including the expansive Yenyenning Lakes, but Murphy takes her depictions of country a step further by introducing abstract mark-making that hints at other elements of the landscape, such as subterranean water sources and cartographer’s symbols.

The Seven Fires series is a deftly realised meditation on the first interactions between First Nations people and European colonisers, referencing the journals of Ensign Dale who explored the district in 1830. Dale writes of spotting “seven native fires” from a vantage point on a small peaked hill (presumably what is now known as County Peak or Quajabin). Murphy reimagines these fires in seven circular abstract images using earthy red and ochre pigments and polymer. They at once evoke a sense of embers and ash in a campfire as well as a macro view of tracks across the landscape.

One of the most rewarding things about “Echoes of the River” is the thoughtful curation, which matches artworks in mini visual conversations. Particularly successful is the pairing of individual paintings with glass bowls. The bowls themselves are quite remarkable. Created in a process known as pâte de verre – where powdered glass is kiln-fired to produce a granulated finish with uneven edges – they are jarringly reminiscent of salt crystals encrusted on human objects abandoned to the elements.

As well as an aesthetically enjoyable collection, “Echoes of the River” is a pertinent statement for the times. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of our connections with country and with the water that sustains us, and a perhaps reminder to treat both with a little more respect. 

“Echoes of the River” continues until 9 April with viewing by appointment with the gallery

Pictured top: “View from the Peak” (oil on canvas) is a key work in Nada Murphy’s collection. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

Past Articles

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