BY Kito Nedo in Reviews | 02 DEC 20

Milly Peck on the Romanticism of Rail Travel

At VITRINE, Basel, the artist creates a theatre-like setting, which reflects on the aesthetics of public transportation

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BY Kito Nedo in Reviews | 02 DEC 20

Located on Vogesenplatz, in the formerly industrial north-Basel area of St. Johann, VITRINE Gallery sits in the middle of an infrastructural sandwich. Overhead, a road bridge spans the rather bleak square; below lies an underground car park. Nestled under the mighty concrete structure of the bridge, the gallery itself is a fragile-looking glass cube, whose glazed walls mean its exhibitions are permanently on view. To the west, the site is bordered by a low, old building – originally a railway signal box, now a cultural centre – itself sandwiched between a tram stop and St. Johann train station.

‘A Matter of Routine’, London-based artist Milly Peck’s first solo show in Switzerland, seemingly draws direct inspiration from this infrastructural nexus, with the individual works – comprising paintings and sculptural installations – relating to one another like chapters in a larger narrative. Scenes familiar to commuters are readily identifiable: hands holding onto rails (Standing Passengers, all works 2020); the curved handlebars of a racing bike on a train (Alternative Means of Travel); an abandoned coffee cup in the corner of a carriage with a small milky puddle forming around it  (The Unforgiving Hour).

Milly-Peck-A-Matter-of-Routine-Installation-View-Basel
Milly Peck, Alternative Means of Travel, 2020, emulsion on valchromat, coloured pencil, wood, 113 × 86 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and VITRINE Gallery Basel/London

These minor quotidian dramas and comedies play out across a range of works that suspend the exhibition between painting, sculpture and installation, continuing the artist’s practice of merging different media to evoke immersive environments similar to theatre sets. Peck’s pared-back approach to surface, colour and line in emulsion-on-wood paintings such as Standing Passengers recalls a cartoon aesthetic; sculptural pieces like Moquette (a row of metro-station benches) and The Eight Bells (the front face of a steam locomotive), however, protrude into the space, as if on a deserted stage set, playing with materiality.

Milly-Peck-A-Matter-of-Routine-Installation-View-Basel
Milly Peck, ‘A Matter of Routine’, 2020, exhibition view, VITRINE Gallery, Basel. Courtesy: the artist and VITRINE Gallery Basel/London

Even if the daily commute is among the less popular routines of city dwellers, rail travel has captivated artists since its rise to prominence during the early 19th century, just as railway stations have inspired extraordinary architecture. From paintings by early enthusiasts such as J.M.W. Turner (Rail, Steam and Speed, 1844) and the impressionist Claude Monet – who persuaded the station manager to delay certain locomotives so he might better study the play of steam, light and colour for Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877) – to more recent examples, such as Wolfgang Tillmans’s series of intimate photographs captured on the London Underground (Circle Line, 2000) or Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian sci-fi movie Snowpiercer (2013), in which a train becomes humanity’s last refuge during a major environmental disaster, artists have long been drawn to rail travel.

Milly-Peck-A-Matter-of-Routine-Installation-View-Basel
Milly Peck, ‘A Matter of Routine’, 2020, exhibition view, VITRINE Gallery, Basel. Courtesy: the artist and VITRINE Gallery Basel/London

According to the show’s accompanying literature, Peck’s installation takes its title from a dialogue in Agatha Christie’s celebrated detective novel Murder on The Orient Express (1934), in which a man is killed on board a train and all of the passengers are embroiled in the case. Yet, the shock, violence and recrimination associated with murder mysteries do not feature in ‘A Matter of Routine’. Perhaps, instead, Peck here reflects on the pandemic-induced caution with which we currently board public transport or enter stations. A new hyper-vigilance has taken the place of our previous daily routine: we eye our fellow travellers warily and try to keep contact with surfaces to an absolute minimum. The uneasy world that Peck depicts is a perfect reflection of our current reality. 

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Milly Peck, ‘A Matter of Routine’ runs at VITRINE Gallery, Basel, until 17 January 2021.

Main image: Milly Peck, ‘A Matter of Routine’, 2020, exhibition view, VITRINE Gallery, Basel. Courtesy: the artist and VITRINE Gallery Basel/London

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.

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