Judith Hagan & Ewan Murray at Hospitalfield

Judith Hagan and Ewan Murray have their first major show in Hospitalfield as part of the DUSK Winter Season later this month

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 07 Nov 2016

For their Winter Season programme this year, Hospitalfield present the work of two emerging Glasgow-based painters – Judith Hagan and Ewan Murray – alongside mid-20th century artist Frank Dobson.

For Hagan and Murray, the exhibition comes after a long and productive period of making work. On a visit to Murray’s studio, a month prior to the exhibition, it appears he already has all of the paintings done, long dry and ready to go. He’ll be showing paintings exclusively, all made over the course of the previous 18 months. Looking over these works, there’s a range of different subject matters from Venetian architecture to gathered crowds; unpeopled dark landscapes to denim stitched together and sprayed with a line of paint.

He considers the kinds of variety and similarities between them, saying, “I’m not really concerned with making them stylistically the same. They’re involved in quite a small set of conventions of painting and its history... all quite small scale and involved with the materiality of painting.”

Murray embraces the unplanned within his paintings. He seeks the moment when “it starts to talk back to you or do something that you don’t expect.” He describes how he processes different photographs and other visual materials to become paintings. One is of a shopfront, a detail from a painting by Walter Sickert that was once on display in the Hunterian Gallery. Another painting of an apartment building was initially the subject of a lo-fi woodcut print Murray made at his desk, when it was flipped around as part of that printing process – at which point the final composition suggested itself.

It’s through these little reworkings and reversals that Murray gradually gives significance to the initial decisions of subject matters. In this way, a painting of an architectural detail becomes something else entirely, with a kind of retroactive poeticising of these initially banal-seeming images.

In one, there’s the silhouette of a head. With the paintings all within the smaller range of easel-sized, this head features surprisingly at life-size. It’s unusual but sets up an interesting relationship of scale and expectation. Without any defined features, yet so ostensibly close, it succinctly brings out the strangeness that often endures (with people, ideas, institutions) despite touching-distance closeness.

Murray promotes little references like the Sickert detail through the lines of books and postcards on his studio walls. For Murray, his productive relationship with histories of art is a way into his co-exhibitor Frank Dobson’s work. More specifically, he thinks of the Italian artists and movements of the same time as Dobson that made the reactionary or radical move (depending on how it’s spun) at the start of the 20th century of being conscious of their place in a historical lineage of artistic influence.

Hagan also talks about her own experience of coming from painting legacies and different movements. She’s managed to fit in time for a phone call in between her rigorous studio and drawing schedule, as she’s just recently begun the intensive Drawing Year at the Royal Drawing School. Just back into the studio properly this week after making the move from Glasgow to London, she describes her routine: “I have a painting I look at every day before I paint, a Bonnard… His technique and handling changes throughout that one painting.”

Nevertheless, she thinks more about the kind of postcards and images she’ll continuously refer to, and thinks that “it’s often not the paintings themselves that are doing it for me, but the idea of the painters and their freeness.” In this regard, she remembers recently seeing the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition, and “the fact that this is what she wants to paint and she went through phase after phase after phase [with the same subject] and that in itself is an encouragement.”

Her own paintings often feature figures crouched in complicated and imaginary landscapes, and are complex experiments in pictorial depth and space, composition and interactions in flatness and depth. There’s a strong sense of symbolism, but without entirely prescribing specific meanings. For instance ponds feature in several of the landscapes, each time taking on a different role or significance.

Hagan sees some parallels between her processes and Murray, who often works from a photographic image to begin, from which he’ll often work into having entirely new realms of significance and reference. Nevertheless, Hagan works not from concrete images but rather “those moments you have during your life that are in themselves a world of meaning.” Describing this further, she remembers one night in a cloakroom when someone brushed the underside of her arm. Coming after a period of travel, there was a jolt as she realised suddenly that it had been some time since anyone else had touched her. “I ended up making a drawing from that and a painting and another painting.”

Nevertheless, a certain processing of these singular moments is important as they become the paintings and sculptures she makes. For her, while there’s always a huge subjectivity to making, during the painting process, a work “will become less specific and hopefully more universal, and that’s why people can be moved by these same moments” that have been unpicked and reflected on. In this way, an accidental graze can become an entire affective and literal landscape.

“I make a lot of [the elements of these landscapes] up, but… I’m constantly engaged with external reality. The way Ewan thinks about these photographs, I’m just thinking about these ideas, looking at things that make no sense, and being constantly arrested by the idea you’re in existence.” Painting is a different kind of career for Hagan because these ideas can be constantly addressed: “You’re thinking and using your senses, [and engaged] with the strangeness of it all, whether it was a lonely moment or some beautiful reflection in a puddle in Glasgow… it doesn’t matter.” These are all, for her, “sublime moments.”

Murray speaks in similar terms: “All the potential [of an artwork] for me is built up in the translation and the making process [of painting] and looking to be surprised and looking for something that seems to relate to things going on or things I’ve seen. And it has a relation with poetry in a way, when you have a thing that captures a moment, or feeling or a way of describing something. And in a really good painting that’s what you have.”

Hospitalfield Winter Season Open Weekend takes place from 19-20 November. See hospitalfield.org for full details