Lisa Milroy: life is not still
Lisa Milroy calls herself a still-life painter. She paints things. She paints shoes, clothing, lace, accessories. She paints vases and vessels. So yes, I suppose she is a still-life painter, except her paintings and installations, it has to be said from the start, are far from still. Rather, it is hard to keep their mobility in check, by which I mean the mobility between the pictorial things that she animates as much as the things themselves. Her recent experiments with animation would seem simply to reinforce this fact. How to hold a thing in your mind? is the question that seems to hover over all her work.
When Proust wrote about Chardin’s still-life painting, his gaze was directed to precisely this: the way paint could animate the pictorial world, as a kind of anti-world built out conditions of boredom and ennuie. Of course Milroy’s paintings look nothing like Chardin’s. They are fuelled instead by an abstract lexicon of repetition, with objects and things laid out in modular and serial formats. She has consistently used grid-type arrangements in order to dramatise the side-by-side, up-and-down relations between repeated motifs, revealing metonymic slippages as one thing transmutes into another. In the process the iconographical meaning is emptied out in favor of more complex formal metaphorics – of surfaces and shapes that contain or are contained, materials which veil or are veiled, revealed or hidden.
Lisa Milroy’s work is an experiment in how elastic and malleable painting might be. It is full of paint, yes, but also of any number of other materials for that matter, like plastic or fabric, which she overlays with paint. Her recent installations of painting-dresses that hang on the wall on clothes hangers and which can be taken off the wall at will, ‘act out’ the performative nature of painting. They, like all her work, are animated, but now literally so, inviting the viewer to make her choices and switch them around – to join in the general traffic of things that she asks us to imagine we are part of.
Painting is expanded into three dimensions. Just as so much of her work has been triggered by thinking the opacities of painting in Goya and Velasquez, so her 3-D paintings – which can be converted into any number of different versions of themselves – take up the gauntlet of Lygia Clark’s radical experiments in sculpture from the late 1950s. In the process she makes material – and paint is always palpably material in her hands – our perceptual experience of the world. When she paints black lace, for example, she paints not just the fabric, but the visual experience of both seeing and not seeing through dark material.
But this is not just about how we see. Milroy’s is an intensely haptic world. Her work forces a kind of reckoning between sight and touch. Her painted surfaces are never safe from the tactile, just as they are never simply expressive in the conventional sense. They can be chalky or luscious, or both at the same time on occasions. Painted onto cloth as it sometimes is, it can be awkward, clumsy even, refusing the protocols and nuances of painting as it delves into its infantile and bodily pleasures. As much as her work seems to break things down into so many parts, so it consistently, insistently, redraws such points of contact with the body whilst rarely depicting it directly. Instead the world of ordinary and often small things becomes the body’s prosthetic universe, drawn according to a new set of coordinates.
How to hold a thing in the mind? in Lisa Milroy’s work, is another way of asking how to hold a thing in a painting, or in the end, of how painting can hold things together? In experience, her work demonstrates precisely how precarious that hold always is. Increasingly, her work has shifted from the earlier gridded thingscapes to paintings that reflect on the work’s temporal aspects.
That is to say, if from the very outset, Lisa Milroy showed the way the pictorial lexicon of painting is made up of so many parts and fragments, more recently, she has come to show how the time of painting is also broken down into parts. Most vividly, this is set in train by what the artist refers to as fast and slow painting. Strokes that track the speed of notation, sometimes with cartoon-like spontaneity, are laid side-by-side now with the apparently slower idiom of more precise renderings. Increasing large and ever more complex works that spill over into installation lay out that mise en scene for us: as spectators, we are caught within it and in the thrall of its disorienting effects.