Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

Denis Murrell finds his niche in a Chinese place

Posted by Kimberly on June 9, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
June 9, 2007, page 15 (1,097 words)

Image supplied by Antonio Falcao (Bloom bookshop, Macau)

“I remember a painting I was working on for seven years.
“I had it next to my bed so that in the living room, through the door of my bedroom I could see it on the other side.
“I decided to cover it all with white and let some of the green crepe paper show through and I ran out of white paint half way through so the painting ended up half white and half green. That was just because I ran out of paint.
“But then I didn’t know what to do. I really had no idea of how to continue. One morning I woke up and bingo, there it was.
“And it won the Macau Biennial in 1995. But if you work it out on how many dollars per minute…”
Thankfully not every painting artist Denis Murrell creates takes such a long period of time.
“I can be working with up to 20 paintings at the same time but they take different times to finish,” he says.
The 60-year-old Australian-born artist has been residing in Macau for nearly 19 years and admits that changes have occurred.
“When I first came here it was dominated by Portuguese and Macanese. The Chinese art societies were on the sideline really.
“Since the handover and as the years have gone by, naturally enough, there’s been more of a concentration of Chinese artists, because now this is a Chinese place.
“Almost every Portuguese national day, they’d have an exhibition by some great Portuguese artist. That doesn’t happen anymore so we don’t see so much European art here anymore. The real stuff,” he says.
There are positives though.
“More of the ordinary people are coming to look at the art. They didn’t do that before. They just walked by.
“And there are schools now that are developing some art programs. Art in schools before hardly existed. So that’s a big change and it’s good,” he says.
Denis’ current exhibition ‘Homework’ was done entirely in the artist’s residence, a step out of the ordinary.
“It’s more spontaneous for me to be at home. If I could, I’d live in a studio. I’d have a studio with a bed in the middle and sleep there,” he says.
His decision not to follow any particular style makes it difficult to define him.
“There are too many ideas coming in at the same time and I really don’t know where the ideas come from.
“I don”t look at books and say ‘I’ll paint something like that’ and I don’t dream about it.
“Sometimes I cover a canvas with tissue and put some very light-coloured paint all over it and that gives me some idea for a painting,” he says.
If one were to try and define Denis’ style, his use of tissue throughout his paintings could come close to creating some sort of trademark.
“Well I guess so, as I’ve never heard of anybody else doing it. Mine is restaurant tissue and toilet paper and stuff like that. Every painting starts with toilet paper.
“I started using tissue almost immediately by accident. The best things happen by accident. I split some paint on the floor and wiped it up with tissue and saw the pattern on the tissue and thought ‘oh that might be nice if I glued it on’ so I started doing that,” he says.
His paintings hang on the walls of VIP rooms at Wynn and Crown casinos, yet he has never seen them there.
“Unless you’ve got five million patacas to play in there!” he adds with a laugh.
The Australian humour shines through, particularly when Denis begins talking about his beginnings as an artist.
“I used to paint at school in Australia and then I went to Papua New Guinea and I stopped painting because in 1970 I got married and my wife said ‘real men don’t paint’! Even though I proved it to her otherwise, if you know what I mean!”
He adds that to prevent argument, he agreed to take up photography, a vocation that continued until their divorce eight years later.
“I still didn’t take up painting again until I came back to Australia in 1981 and I painted intermittently.
“When I came here [to Macau] in 1989 I found out there was a competition at the city council that they held every November so I started entering and it took me seven years before I actually won.
“I had an exhibition five years after that, my first exhibition, and it’s just gone on from there.”
He adds that his first paintings were very dark.
“When I look back at it now I wonder why I wanted to paint in such dark colours.”
His works fetch a high price but ask him to deal with the business side of painting and he grimaces.
“I’m not a business man. I hate dealing with money and banks and finance and loans. I really, really detest it! So for me, it’s nice to have somebody who can deal with anybody who wants to buy my paintings.”
By that somebody, he means his agent in Singapore. Which naturally led to the question of whether she had ever arranged for Denis to exhibit his work back in Australia. Denis responded with a story about a chance meeting with a French gentleman who offered to arrange a meeting with the Federation Square Gallery in Melbourne.
“He gave me his card and I gave him mine. He said ‘I’ll contact them and be in touch with you’ and I’ve never heard from him since.”
After that statement, there is a sense that this is an accomplishment Denis hopes can still be realised.
The conversation returns to the present and his use of alternative materials.
“I like to use denim. I’ve used nylon. I’ve used linen, cotton drill. In fact when you’re doing collage, you can use almost any cloth. I still like to use denim because you can scratch back to the black of the denim,” says Denis.
The exhibition will be held at the Centre for Creative Industries until June 30, with the open reception occurring tonight at 6pm.
His passion for his work is there in every word and gesture but mostly in his response to the question over whether he could see an end in sight.
“I’ll paint till I die. I hope I die with a brush in my hand.
“I could have been put into semi-retirement on a pension in Australia. Who the hell would want that? Not for me. I never want to get a pension. Never.”

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