Understanding the work of Robert MacPherson


There’s all sorts of ways to approach and engage with the contemporary art of our times. It can be helpful to start with an artwork’s physical form, its size, the materials from which it’s made, or even how the various elements relate to each other.

Brisbane-born painter Robert MacPherson (1937–2021) was one of Australia’s most significant artists and found inspiration in everyday life, including in the slang words and scientific terms that we often take for granted.

Samantha Littley, Curator Australian Art at QAGOMA explores a much-loved artwork by MacPherson in our Collection, Mayfair: (Swamp rats) ninety-seven signs for C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W. 1994–95, in which MacPherson riffs on the hand-painted signs that appear on the verges of our nation’s byroads and highways.

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Robert MacPherson ‘Mayfair: (Swamp rats) Ninety-seven signs for C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W.’ 1994-95

MacPherson’s Mayfair: (Swamp rats) Ninety-seven signs for C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W. consists of 75 masonite panels painted in the manner of home-made roadside advertisements. The artist explores fundamental aspects of the meaning and making of art, his approach to making art almost always involves the use of multiples, a sequence of similar or identical objects, in this instance repeating a single standard-sized unit with different inscriptions and variations of background tone, arranged as a grid.

As a conceptual artist, MacPherson has dedicated his career to questioning what it is, essentially, that makes a work of art. In this overwhelming block of painted language, meaning is fractured, and you may just interpret it visually as an abstract image, however this monumental painting is dedicated to a group of individuals (identified in the title by their initials: C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W.) who are fishermen, or ‘swamp rats’, inhabiting the marshy zone near the mouth of the Brisbane River.

Robert MacPherson, Australia 1937-2021 / Mayfair: (Swamp rats) Ninety-seven signs for C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W. (and details) 1994-95 / Acrylic on masonite / 97 panels: 92 x 61cm (each); 370 x 1573cm or 556 x 1069cm (installed) / Purchased 1998 with a special allocation from the Queensland Government. Celebrating the Queensland Art Gallery’s Centenary 1895-1995 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Robert MacPherson

View Robert MacPherson’s Mayfair: (Swamp rats) Ninety-seven signs for C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W. in the Queensland Art Gallery Foyer until 27 November 2022.