Conor Murgatroyd: Allowing the Past to be Present in the Future

The London-based Artist Discusses What Drives His Work
July 17, 2021
Photo by Ollo Weguelin
Photo by Ollo Weguelin

Jacob Barnes  

How would you define your own practice, and what would you describe as the core tenets of your work?

 

Conor Murgatroyd  

Well, my practice has always been centred around creating an honest depiction of my life and the world around me; painting helps me create a language that allows the past to be present in the future. Also, the subject matter in my works is always evolving, so the people and objects I depict always become vessels for a broader narrative in my work. That's the say, similar themes recur, even if the subject matter is different.

 

JB: That makes a lot of sense, and thinking towards your work, I think you've captured the sentiment beautifully. I'm fascinated by the way that you are able to create a temporal continuum through your work, using art historical references in very contemporary work that looks towards the future. With that in mind, who would you consider to be the primary historical references you draw from?

 

CM: Dead and living: [David] Hockney, [Henri] Matisse, [René] Magritte, [Pierre] Bonnard, [Édouard] Manet, [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir, all of the Impressionists, [Henri] Fantin-Latour. Mainly impressionists at the moment, but also Edward Hopper for things like composition, theme, and colour. I'm certainly using his influence within my own style, but he's a massive influence. I also look to Bonnard for subject matter. Outside of that, I really like Sean Scully and Callum Innes, but I don't look at their work on a day to day basis. 

 

JB: I'm very interested by the influence of Edward Hopper, in part because his compositions are so dejected and lonely, which is not something I associate with your work.

 

CM: Yeah, his work is very lonely, and it's sometimes very depressing, which is not something that's in my work. I think my paintings have a lot more humour in them than his. But my favourite one of his is one of a lady working in a cinema – New York Movie (1939) – and Nighthawks (1942). I'm drawn to their colour palette and how "clean" they are. They've got a naivety to them, but there's still a craft to them; they're still technically well-painted.

 

JB: Whenever I think of Hopper, I can't help but to think of Olivia Laing's writing on him in The Lonely City. But considering these historical references, did you always understand your work as existing in a broader historical conversation? Or was this something that you developed through art school?

 

CM: I always just depicted an honest view of my everyday, really – it's just human documentation. It's different documentation of different people's journeys, which by nature is quite a historical survey. But I also do still lifes as a means to reference history, which is why I cling to it as such a consistent theme; I'm trying to do something other than just paint pretty flowers, but to recreate elements of old still life paintings and bring them back to use them in different ways. 

 

JB: Who amongst your peers do you work most closely in dialogue with? That's not to say your favourite artist, but maybe who your practice overlaps with the most?

 

CM: There's loads of different artists that I like and think about. One of my favourite artists at the moment is actually Corbin Shaw, because his work is so closely aligned to where I grew up, and he's such a nice guy, but my favourite painter who's painting at the moment is probably Tom Howse. If you read his interview with FAD Magazine, he talks about not just painting pretty flowers and cute little dogs; there's a lot more to his practice, which is something I like. But his paintings are also very beautiful and technical, which I certainly aspire towards. Mitch [Vowles] is another artist as well – I really love his stuff. He's also a stand-up guy, and was at Chelsea [College of Arts] with me, although in the year below me. And the painter with whom I share my studio, Jack Felgate – he's great. He uses a hairbrush to paint, which I'd never really been exposed to before, along with stencils and tape. But he's also a great guy, which goes hand in hand with it; I can't tolerate people who are rude. 

 

JB: At some point, particularly in the contemporary context, it's difficult to like someone's work if they're unkind to you or people you know. But do you think the contemporary art world has difficulty remembering its past? And if so why do you think that is? And if not, where do you see history kind of seeping through a very modern facade?

 

CM: Well, there are many structures in there in the contemporary art world, and they allow little hints of the past through, although in different ways. But as practices evolve, remember the past is part of creating dialogue: you can't create dialogue if you're not already working with something that exists to create something new. You're always going to be referencing something that already exists. 

 

JB: I think it's a really wonderful point; you can't actually have dialogue unless you're already speaking to something. I have to ask: What direction are you looking to take your work in the coming months? What are some of the primary themes that you're considering at the moment? 

 

CM: I'm working on a solo show for a gallery at the minute, which has got ten new paintings – four new portraits and six new still lifes – and I'm really excited for it because it's based on my fiancée's family in Croatia. The portraits are of the people in her family, and the still lifes are of the different foods and cuisines they have, so Croatian, Italian, along with a bunch of little cultural references. I'm really excited for that. And then I've got another solo show in Peckham in October, at a florist, which is something I've planned for about two years now, and there will be a new body of work for that. 

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