In his 1999 letter to artists, Pope John Paul II wrote that, ‘In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.’ This letter has been a source of inspiration for Melbourne artist James Murnane, who for the past 14 years has dedicated his life to creating abstract artworks that he hopes provide a ‘glimpse or signpost’, pointing to the mystery of God. Fiona Basile spoke to the 38-year-old contemporary artist, husband and father from Melbourne about his spiritual life and the recent ‘everyday experiences’ that have intertwined to form the works for his upcoming exhibition, The present demands of love.

In an old, three-storey warehouse in Clifton Hill, in Melbourne’s inner north, two floors of studios house around 30 creative practitioners. James Murnane is one of them, having worked in his studio space for the past nine years. Inside his studio, which he refers to as his ‘monk’s cell’, you will find an array of materials: paint, paper, wooden panels, brushes and books. A feature of the room is the large window that faces east, overlooking houses and factories, and a railway line.

One of his favourite things is to get into the studio very early, during ‘blue hour’, to watch the emerging dawn and sunrise. ‘Oftentimes that first hour, I’m not working,’ he says. ‘It’s essentially a time of prayer and contemplation in order to gently ease into the day.’ James is very intentional in his desire to ground his artistic work in his spiritual life and the desire to draw closer to the mystery of God—for him, the two are intertwined. It influences the choice of materials he uses and is his motivation for choosing abstract painting over other art forms.

‘With abstract art making, it feels like I’m just that little bit closer to the essence of creation in so far as I’m seeking to materialise the unseen,’ he explains.

Abstract art making for me has become more and more about acting as a conduit, to offer a glimmer or signpost, some small pathway through to the unseen. My hope is that the work provides an opportunity to encounter moments of beauty, which engages with that longing and desire to encounter the unseen.’

Inspired in his younger years by his creative older brother, and strongly encouraged by his high-school art teacher at Whitefriars College in Donvale, James eventually went on to study fine art at RMIT in Melbourne. It was here that he ‘fell in love’ with abstract art making. ‘Art school was a time of discovery, where we were encouraged to try many different forms and mediums,’ he says. ‘The thing that caught me by surprise in art school was that I fell in love with non-representative painting—abstract painting—in other words, work that does not have figures or a formal representation of something.’

In his current work, James often uses iridescent paint (luminous colours that seem to change when seen from different angles) and gold leaf. He explains, ‘With iridescent materials, be it gold leaf or iridescent paint, there will be times when it’s bright, vivid and palpable, but there are other times where it shuts down, becomes muted, cloudy and unclear. And that’s why I utilise it—I feel like it’s a true material analogy for the interior life, for the life of prayer.’

Upcoming exhibition: The present demands of love

James’ upcoming solo exhibition, The present demands of love, which will take place at TCB Art Inc., Brunswick, features three parts, each of which were created within the broader context of his own spiritual life and what was happening in his daily life. The first is titled ‘Trust’, a singular large painting made with acrylic on carved silky oak plywood. Unable to access his studio during Melbourne’s long, hard lockdown in the latter half of 2020, James completed ‘Trust’ at home. He was only able to work during his toddler’s afternoon naps, setting up and packing down each time:

I was slowly working in the fragments of time that I had available. It was a period of juggling and a period of trying to keep the wheels turning on my practice as well as trying to meet the needs of my family.

The work involved carving into the surface of the wood panel, a ‘slow, delicate and laborious process’, he says. Once he finished carving, he filled in these sections with shimmering gold paint. ‘Where the paint and wood coalesce, this is analogous to the unity of body and spirit. The iridescent paint I use is indicative of the interior, spiritual life, of the unseen and the eternal, while the wood points to the human body—organic and raw—and when the two come together, it’s akin to the union, the integration, of body and spirit.’

The second series of works were completed last year during the second long lockdown in Melbourne. Again, during this period, James was unable to access his studio and was a full-time, stay-at-home dad with his then two-year-old—his workplace being non-permitted while his wife was an essential worker. His small periods of respite were either spent resting on the bed or making the works in the bedroom. ‘Both the rest and the making in this environment were restorative lifelines during those uncertain and tenuous times,’ he recalls. Rising early to work on the dining table between 4.30 and 6.30am provided another window. ‘In spite of the fact that I would be exhausted for the rest of the day, I would be enriched because it was a prayer time of sorts,’ he says.

For these works, James used an embossing needle to draw into white paper and then filled in the gaps with an iridescent paint. First, these paintings were a cathartic tool. Second, they were a means of creatively reflecting on the spiritual texts he was reading at the time: Scripture and the Catechism, Ephrem the Syrian’s Hymns on Paradise and Richard of St Victor’s Benjamin Minor (The Twelve Patriarchs).

The third set of works, which he has been working on over recent months, will feature vibrant paintings that incorporate gold leaf, also on silky oak plywood. James specifically uses silky oak because of its rich, natural grain, noting ‘there’s already something beautiful to begin with. And as for the gold, no metallic paint can match the glimmering brilliance of genuine gold leaf.’

Each of the works were completed in difficult circumstances, particularly the first two sets, with all of the challenges posed by COVID lockdowns and balancing the needs of self-care, family care and work. These experiences only served to deepen James’ reliance on contemplative prayer and the steadfast support and encouragement of his wife.

Referring to his drawings created last year, he says, ‘These works are delicate and intricate and, despite being quite small, were physically demanding to create. And they were made in the midst of balancing the needs at hand—my need to make art, and the needs of my family. With the parent–artist dynamic being ever fragile, these works are some of its fruits.

And while I do make the work for myself to a degree, primarily I make it to enrich others. I see this as meeting a particular need in terms of affording people nourishing spiritual and intellectual food.

‘So, the exhibition itself, The present demands of love, speaks into what is essential, to willing the good of the other, and so adapting to what is required for my own good, for the good of my family, for the good of those that I assist in my day job, for the good of those that I hope to enrich by the artwork, and all whom I share life with. That’s what I’ve brought into the work.’

Currently, James also works part time as a studio assistant for another abstract artist, whose work ethic and generosity in sharing their professional knowledge have enriched him immensely.

As the exhibition fast approaches, James hopes that ‘there is an accessibility and enough of an openness that people feel they can engage with the artworks.’ He says, ‘The reality is that they have their own life: when I put them in the gallery space, people will encounter them the way that they encounter them. I can’t dictate how people will interpret or respond. But I do hope the works point people to mystery. The mystery of the One who is Love.’

James Murnane’s exhibition, The present demands of love, will open on Wednesday 14 December 2022 at TCB Art Inc., 1–5 Wilkinson Street, Brunswick. It will continue to run from 15 to 18 December, and then from 12 to 22 January. For full details, see James Murnane’s website.

Main image: James Murnane in his studio. Photo by Fiona Basile.