BY Jeffrey Kastner in Reviews | 05 JUN 93
Featured in
Issue 11

Lisa Milroy

BY Jeffrey Kastner in Reviews | 05 JUN 93

Poor painting - no other medium has endured such poking and prodding, so many reports of fatal illness or even death. As cold and stiff as it has sometimes been, the concerns are understandable, although contemporary aesthetic diagnoses have put forth the opinion that the patient's symptoms might have been better attributed not to rigor mortis, but to a kind of historical paralysis. Not knowing exactly which way to go, it often hasn't seemed to be going much of anywhere.

The conceits of the two kingdoms from which all the stylistic species have descended in the world of painting are many and diverse and have been thoroughly - some would say endlessly -- explored and exposed. We've been taught to be sceptical about representational painting, about its mechanical inability to do anything new, about its place within systems of repressive hierarchy that have dominated the small world of aesthetics just as they have the larger social stage. Not that abstraction has fared much better in terms of novelty or egalitarianism - despite its original stance in opposition to the complacent hegemony of representational painting, it has gone the way of so many radicals before and since, ending up in many ways just as fat and happy as the original target of its foment.

While these and many other issues have cast an intermittent pall over the medium through the years, one of the modern products of the fitful evolutionary changes in painting seems to be a kind of stylistic freedom which optimistically synthesises elements of the two camps, choosing some modes for purely pictorial reasons, others precisely because of the suspicion they are likely to arouse. Lisa Milroy is one whose work capitalises on this synthetic approach, implementing strategies from both representation and abstraction and marrying them in a personal style which provokes both the eye and the mind.

Perhaps best known for warmly painted, if deadpan, canvases cluttered with rows of familiar household objects like light bulbs and clothing, Milroy's style is often meticulously figurative. In her new show she continues her explorations in several large works dotted with cheery plates, bowls and saucers. These pieces also provide a primer in the kind of purposeful stylistic pick-and-choose which Milroy employs, and the subtle tensions she keeps balanced. Regimentally set in blank monochromatic fields, her dish paintings echo Pop Art's preoccupation with both calculated repetition and the ubiquitous details of daily living, yet the objects are given conventional pictorial body through the simple application of shadow, while further inspection reveals wonderfully gestural brushwork in the most painterly of traditions. Even the plates themselves, while signifying a type of repetitive mundanity, are decorated in their own unique style. The paintings are sly conflations of differing theoretical and mechanical approaches toward one subject, incorporating both a classical faith in objects and a post-modernist scepticism about the contexts in which they are usually framed.

While the plate paintings give the viewer a glimpse of Milroy's past, the other four groups of works - of flowers, rocks, crowd scenes and landscapes - point toward several interesting evolutions. The rocks are perhaps the most similar to the plates in subject and format, (though one piece is made up of 24 individual square canvases, a plan which imposes the same kind of spatial order found in Milroy's earlier works). Again, these are familiar things illustrated with a certain amount of precision but also with gestural grace, separated from the natural context in which one might expect to find objects painted in this manner, and instead set, like the dishes, with deep shadow in a featureless gray space. A re-evaluation of the framing of the subject is likewise at the heart of her recent flower paintings - squares overflowing with rich blossoms which at a distance seem almost photographic, cropped tight like illustrations from seed catalogues. As such they speak to issues of an idealised, commercialised nature, controlled and co-opted by man. They simultaneously provoke consideration of the idealising traditions of floral painting by embracing some of its conventional elements such as brushwork and palette, while disrupting others like composition.

For all the complexities of the various balances Milroy strikes in these works, her images of crowds and night-time cityscapes develop even more involved relationships between subject and style. The least strictly representational of the works on view, they have, paradoxically, the most narrative potential. Like clandestine aerial surveillance images, her tiny crowd paintings dissolve into pointillistic colourfield from certain distances, though up close there remains that sense of gestural handling viewers have come to expect in Milroy's canvases. In these abstracted crowd scenes and the beautiful dark urban landscapes, Milroy skilfully reconciles the diverse styles with the subjects from which she selects. In a small way, she also does her part in restoring a certain faith in painting in this 'post-stylistic' era: Neither as an obsolete institution which needs to be attacked, nor as a sacrosanct tradition which needs defending, but as a way to produce something which can be both handsome and provocative, which utilises the whole range of painting's means to discover new ends for this supposedly derelict medium.