Painter Lisa Milroy Talks About Her Favorite Things
GLASGOW AND LONDON — LISA MILROY is shy of tape-recorders. She says they make her ``clam up.'' All her thoughts fly off. So we talk unrecorded. And she has plenty of thoughts. We sit alone with coffee and biscuits (``Very civilized!'' she says with a weightless Canadian accent) in the large space of Glasgow's Third Eye Centre, the morning before the opening of her latest show. It's one more step in the steady growth of this young painter's reputation, her first one-person exhibition in a public gallery in Britain. (She lives and works in London).
Miss Milroy, born in 1959 in Vancouver, Canada, was at the University of the Sorbonne, Paris, 1977-78; at St. Martin's School of Art, London, 1978-79; Goldsmith's College of Art 1979-82. She has had several solo shows in commercial galleries in Paris, London, and San Francisco.
We are surrounded with painterly, bold images of objects. Light bulbs, all shapes, sizes, and colors, broken shards of Greek pottery, tires that seem to speed toward us through the endless white spaces of a large canvas, shoes, door handles, postage stamps, sailor's caps, melons, and a host of other things, always painted on a white ground.
She paints objects. Or more accurately, she paints paintings of objects. The way she paints them - bold, accurate but not too specific, not minutely detailed - uses the objects for the paintings' own ends. These are, a little surprisingly, ``abstract'' paintings, as well as pictures of objects. ``I think the division between `abstract' and `figurative' is probably not quite as clear as we thought,'' she tells me.
``It never was, was it?'' I ask.
``Not really,'' she smiles.
Her objects inhabit their own spaces on the white canvas, sometimes touching, sometimes quite widely separated, sometimes apparently haphazard in their arrangement or forming patterns, sometimes lined up as if on a hardware-store-shelf - objects that are so commonplace that most of us would hardly give them a glance.
``I mean,'' she says - our conversation flitting lightly from one thing to another - ``we're not really conscious of the forms of door handles, except perhaps right in the back of our minds somewhere. And yet how many times a day do we open and shut doors?''
SHE points to a line of door handles lined along the upper part of a painting, displayed on the white ground of the painting - like items in a mail-order catalog, I say.
``Oh, yes. I love mail-order catalogs,'' she says. In this painting she presents objects that are utilitarian but relate to such physical actions as pushing, grasping, holding, and pulling; images of objects extending beyond mere image, becoming memories of experience, paradigms of function.
But more than that, they take on new meanings altogether. Often it is repetition that makes this happen. ``If one thing is repeated over and over again, it becomes something different.'' She points to the lines of sailor's caps - rather casual, suggesting weekend yachtsmen rather than naval officers - painted in their five rows of five in 1985. The more you look at these white and shiny-black objects, soft and hard, with glittering gold badges, the more they might be something else. ``Like oysters,'' I say. ``Yes, or like waves,'' she answers.
Or just like painting.
A canvas of black-shiny women's shoes (she obviously likes painting black-shiny things) similarly suggests wet-glistening mollusks. But a painting of a shoe is also the idea of a shoe. Milroy has placed them (naturally enough) in pairs, each different, different in relationship to each other, toes together, apart, seen from above, from the side, one on its side, one on its sole, shoes engaged in shoe-talk, shoe-touch, shoe-love. They're always the same shoes, or at least the same design of shoe. Quick-quick, slow ... slow .... Shoes are feet. Feet dance. Shoes dance. Objects have a life of their own.
``I am fascinated,'' she says, ``by the way in a Frans Hals painting, for instance, he paints a lace collar. It's a lace collar, you know that, but at the same time it's flickering white paint.'' The 17th-century Hals is a telling choice among Old Masters for Milroy to mention: a speedy painter - Milroy talks of her paintings in terms of speed and slowness - a painter of extraordinary facility with the brush, magically economic, master of highlights.
Milroy likewise. Hals would surely also have disliked tape-recorders. Too detailed. And Milroy informs me firmly: ``I don't paint directly from objects in the studio.'' She makes drawings, certainly, and has a big collection of visual material in the studio. ``But if I paint from the object in front of me, I am too easily overwhelmed with information.''
She doesn't want too much information. Her painting of postage stamps (1988), for example. Each little image is a tiny color print, edges perforated, shadow cast on the white surface of the canvas as if it were a table top. You can tell what the images on the stamps (themselves a sub-art-form) are. But that's enough. This is no trompe l'oeil painting to play games with philatelists. Milroy doesn't pretend the painting can be mistaken for the objects represented in it. It's enough that we accept these ``as stamps'' - but more information would limit the freedom of imagination to see them also as metaphors.
``I was having ideas about neighborhoods,'' she says, ``and how you travel between neighborhoods - across the white spaces.'' Stamps symbolize places, and spaces between places, messages sent from place to place. She talks also of looking down while on night flights at the communities of lights below, separated by areas of blackness, or at large fish surrounded by communities of small fish, or at stars in the sky.
``You painted quite a number of `light bulb' paintings?'' I ask, not really changing the subject.
``Yes. I really love them. It's as if there's another world inside them, inside the bulb.'' And she likes their metal bases. ``Gold or silver. It makes me think of the sun or the moon.''
HER bulbs are not, however, painted as light sources. They're unlit. Shop objects. And it strikes me that the objects she paints are not discarded waste. She paints potential rather than obsolescence. The bulbs can still light (presumably), the records can be played, the shoes and caps worn, the melons aren't bad.
But no sooner do you reach a conclusion like that about her work, than something else she has done catches you unawares. There are the paintings of broken classical Greek vases. ``Fragments.'' These abound in metaphor of wastage: culture shattered, the past ravaged, objects smashed. ``But I've also made paintings of whole vases,'' she chuckles.
``Yes ... and even the fragments aren't dusty, are they, like objects neglected in a museum basement?'' I offer. ``They don't seem precious or valuable. And they are very shiny and polished, aren't they? Almost too good to be true.''
``As if they've been restored by an overzealous restorer,'' she agrees, and it's almost as though she is talking about objects in a painting by someone else. But that's the way it feels with Milroy's paintings: They are both hers and not hers. Both subjective and objective.
After closing at Glasgow's Third Eye Centre a few days ago, the exhibition moved to Plymouth City Art Gallery (through April 15) and thereafter goes to Southampton City Art Gallery (May 20 to June 26).
Milroy's first show in New York is scheduled for next winter at the Mary Boone Gallery.