Sunday, September 11, 2011

I told you there were cows in the country

Sometimes it's the simplest things that bring delight. Like yesterday. I was driving home after a few days in the city for work - admiring the green pastures and rolling hills and thinking how glad I was that I had moved to the country, when I drove into Cowwarr ...


It's just a little bit lovely.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What drives you to creation?

What drives you to creation? Just what is that itch that must be scratched?

What drives you to pick up your brush, to dip your fingers into the paint and start marking that blank canvas? To scrape a knife across the surface of tacky oil paint. Is it the medium, the gooey texture - slippery or sticky, or thin and delicate. Is it the smell? The feel of the tools in your hands, the paint on your fingers, the hard swatches of it drying on your clothes. Are you moved by the full, thick brushes, perfectly maintained. The tubes lined up in order on your work bench - chromological of course. The jar of special favourites, clagged up, hard edged, paint spatted stubs of brushes - not so perfectly maintained. The twiggy sticks, rollers or scraps of lacy fabric that you use to mark the surface. The bubble wrap, the feathers, the bird bones, the twine and the seaweed.

Is it collaboration that wags your tail? The thrill of bouncing ideas off arty minds - seeing those ideas grow wings and fly away. Sharing their wild and crazy madness where they will. I'm pretty new to collaboration but I can see that it has the power to hold me. Possibly forever. It might just be a never ending adventure.

Maybe it's the unique happy place that you go to when you sing with other people. When you find those angelic harmonies that hover about your head, and you try to hold them there.

Maybe it is that intense and highly personal relationship with your hands and fingers that is part of the textile territory. Crotcheting close to the heart - small and close and personal.

Maybe you find out who you are when you beat metal, heat its points in a small cokey fire, then beat it, pull it, twist it, turn it, till it becomes your own. Forged by your own hand, driven by your vision. That's strong stuff.

Making something from nothing.

Making something of power and beauty from nothing.

I love painting. I love getting lost in the process. I love the difficulties inherent in exploring knotty issues through abstraction. Teasing them out and looking at what is there. I love the complex simplicity that is necessary in abstraction. I am inspired and stimulated by people's thoughts and ideas. By inventions and discoveries. By rituals and customs. I think I am trying to understand the world and my place in it better through looking at how all those ideas fit together, or how they don't fit together. By turning them over and over, looking at them from all angles, taking them apart, putting them back in different ways.

By trying to understand them from an artist's perspective.  I think that is what drives me to creation.

What is it for you?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Quarks, threads and a helpless longing ...

Regions of the Heavens I. Oil on canvas with cotton stitching. 1000mm x 1000mm. Deborah Milligan
Regions of the Heavens I looks at the Heavens as place of profound mystery and reverence with one of the many ancient symbols for air - and heaven - floating across the surface. The symbolic power of the four elements has long been part of our thinking and this enduring obsession is to do with their intrinsic connection to the cycle of life and death. Historically, exposure to the four elements represents the only ways in which the dead can be disposed of, and through this exposure nourish and support new life. Interestingly these symbols are largely circular.

Regions of the Heavens II: A Helpless Longing. Oil on canvas with cotton stitching.
1000mm x 1000mm.Deborah Milligan
Regions of the Heavens II: A Helpless Longing looks at one of the points where science and religion touch. It talks of a more active engagement, a greater desire to explain and understand. Its initial inspiration is a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

There are other concepts at play in this work too. One is the Thread of Life which weaves through many archetypal stories and is particularly symbolised by the Moraie. The Moraie are referenced in The Odyssey by Homer and also reflected in the actions of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who each day unmade her day’s weaving rather than cut the thread that symbolised her husband's life. In A Helpless Longing the thread itself is symbolic, not just the form that the thread takes.

The form however also references the 'Lattice of Life': that cosmic matter that possibly connects all aspects of the Universe. The threads in the lattice are carriers of matter, energy and thought, and have been described as ‘non-time, non-space grooves in which life will eventually run’. According to this theory the gaps between the strings are vital: between the strings there is nothing, nothing at all. Is this the ‘pause between the breaths’ of Hinduism? The ‘space between the atoms’? Some physicists theorise that, at a sub-atomic level, space has a foamlike substance, which has a certain synchronicity with the 'Lattice of life'. In his intriguing book 'Clap one hand for the Big Bang' , Ian Pullen from the Theosophical Society states:

Science is generally logical until it gets down to sub-atomic levels and the idiosyncrasies of Quantum Theory. Down amongst the muons and quarks of this universe, all sorts of peculiar and illogical things
happen. Particles can be in two places at once; they can also ‘communicate’ with each other and seem able to foretell the future.

Out of interest there is a pretty cool site with clear descriptions of Quantum Theory (and other related theories) here. Regions of t
he Heavens Debor
I like the friction between all these thoughts: the helpless longing, the thread of life, the 'Lattice of Life' and Quantum theory. These concepts don’t sit comfortably together, there are broken lines and unanswered questions, leaps of faith – to me this expresses the mystery of life.

Regions of the Heavens III: The Rift. Oil on canvas with cotton stitching. 1000mm x 1000mm.
Deborah Milligan
Regions of the Heavens III: The Rift focuses in on this tension – at the uneasy relationship between dissecting and accepting, between pushing and containing. Here the ‘rift’ refers not to the space between the atoms, but to our understanding of what that is. This work talks of our need to explain, and thereby contain, that which we don’t understand. To hold it back. It is a basic fear of the unknown. It also looks at when we push our understanding so far that something gives way. It explores that idea: when we push so hard we tear the fabric that holds in our understanding, and then we try, futilely, to re-contain what we have released.

This series is a cyclic progression: accepting, exploring, accepting the next step, exploring from there. For we are in uncharted territory and that is how we must travel.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

My mouth waters when I paint

Abstract art can be difficult to interpret and people often ask me: What comes first - the thought or the painting? Or do they evolve together? How do you know what you are painting?
This is difficult to answer and any response is more an exploration than a definitive answer. For me, often the thought, or the general theme, comes first. Usually this thought is elusive and difficult to pin down. so I will write copiously trying to capture it. Sometimes, when all the elements are out in the open, I will then try to clarify what I want to capture by writing it in haiku form. This strips away all the fluff and leaves me with a very clear direction to follow.  However, I don’t always use that tool. At other times I start with the elusive thoughts still wandering freeform.

White Hot Angry Tears. 250mm x 250mm. Deborah Milligan

The painting above was done a few years ago and was inspired by an aerial view of a desert detention centre that I saw in a newspaper. It struck me with it's stark sense of isolation - a ring road worn in the desert around a fenced prison.  My feelings about the way we treat asylum seekers here in Australia were running hot and I found it hard to focus on what I wanted to say in my painting. I used haiku to really strip away all the excess thoughts and refine my vision. I don't have any literary aspirations, but I do find this an incredibly useful tool. This is one of the few paintings where I have included the haiku in the final work. It summed up my feelings so well, and resonates with the image.

white hot angry tears
so wrong, this desert prison
our land cries with you

When I paint I am often guided by the sensations within my body. When I feel it in my heart, in my stomach, in my hands - even in my mouth - then I know that the painting is working for me. It is a deeply visceral, even primitive feeling. It is only later that I step back and analyse it, refine it, work ‘by the rules’. Initially though, I gather the awareness of what I wish to convey within my body, observe my physical, emotional and intellectual reaction, and then endeavour to give it expression through paint.

Regardless of the way in which I start, the painting itself often tells me more about my initial intentions as it evolves. Sometimes it is only when I have finished that I fully understand what my intentions were. I enjoy allowing the painting to guide me.

I remember once playing about with fridge poetry and making what I thought was an inconsequential five line poem. The next morning when I got up and saw it up there for all to see on the fridge I nearly died! “Crikey! I didn’t want to tell anyone about that!” Completely without my knowing, my subconscious had dredged up an old wound that needed airing and healing.

Art can be incredibly powerful – never underestimate it!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Uncharted Territory - one painting's journey

I thought I would show you the development of a special work - Uncharted Territory. My work always changes as it progresses and this is possibly an extreme example. It went from something I simply wanted to work out of my system, to a piece that has significantly extended my practice and sent me off in a few new directions.

Finished work. Uncharted Territory, Deborah Milligan

I was invited to be part of an exhibiton called Regions of the Heavens at the Gippsland Art Gallery - a beautifully broad and evocative theme and I was quite excited at the thought of exploring this through my art.
I rarely start a painting with drawings or sketches. it's just not the way I work. Whilst I always start with an idea of how I want it to look, and certainly what I want to say though it, the painting itself always goes its own way. But this time I was nervous as I hadn't painted for quite a while, the exhibition was looming and I really wasnt geting anywhere. Still ... I had some time off work and tried to focus. I felt that I had some pretty bad art to get out of my system, so I searched my studio for some cheap material to play with. To muck about on. I found 15 sheets of Arches Velin 160gsm paper that my mother had given me a few years earlier and just started - playing with the idea of celestial navigation, just blocking in a design with acrylics.

1 by Deborah Milligan

I was happy enough with the basic design, so just played around the edges for a while. I really wasn't taking it seriously at this stage. Like I said - I was just getting something out of my system.

But no! Now I start to get irritated by this work. It's too boring, too flat, too ‘designy’. I try to give it a more dynamic, painterly feel. Finally I engage with it!

Okay ... its getting a bit better ... it's still weird and unsatisfying though. I work it a bit more and find that it is starting to get a sense of mystery in some of the areas, a bit more interest. By now I am definitely engaging with it and realise that I no longer want to abandon it to start on the 'real' painting.

So now that I know I want to keep it I try to lift the whole piece, to take it away from the flat one-dimensional feel that is still there.

I should say at this stage that, logistically, it was quite tricky. I hung it on a wall of cupboards in the studio with magnets borrowed from the Gallery, but the cupboard handles kept getting in the way so it wouldnt hang flat.  It is a large piece - 2.8m x 2.3m in total - and so when I wanted to alter one section I had to go up the ladder, get it down and take it to my table, paint it, go back up the ladder, re-attach it, go down the ladder and stand back to see what it looked like. My studio has a large wall that swings open and often I would find myself way out at the other end of the garden looking in.  

Around about this time, or maybe a bit earlier, I started using oils. That certainly added to the logistical difficulties – no longer was it dry and easy to manage when I put it back up on the wall. But oils are just so wonderful to work with! Also, working in a tin shed studio in a heat wave made acrylics too difficult: they dried before I could do anything with them. I also worked at night a lot due to the heat, so it was more pleasant, but it meant that I spent many hours picking the night-insects off with tweezers.

Now I started to get into trouble. There are two paintings going on here: one dynamic, one more subtle and I didn't know which path to follow.  I always find this the hardest thing to do in painting – to choose between two (or more) possible directions. I liked some of the dynamic lines and areas that had been there for a while – I was comfortable with that style – but the new mystery was appealing too. Now that I was using oils I started scumbling, rubbing back and really working the surface to get interesting textures.

All along the theme is developing along with the painting. I always seem to spend as much time thinking and looking as I do painting. The ‘celestial navigation’ theme had evolved into a journey through uncharted territory – whether that be celestial, terestrial or spiritual. I liked the ambiguity that I was starting to play with and that helped me to bite the bullet and plunge headling down the more mysterious path.

Here it is virtually finished. As you can see there are creases and ridges in the paper which I had to flatten out before taking it to the gallery. I did so by gently rubbing the back with hot water and then flattening the sheets under weights.

Below is my Artist's Statement for Uncharted Territory. It really did take me on a journey – from something that I thought I was going to discard, to a piece that has significantly extended my practice and taught me a lot about trusting the journey.

I am intrigued by the slippage where science and spirituality touch: those points of similarity and difference where theories rub up against each other and cause a bit of friction. The beautifully broad scope of Regions of the Heavens presents me with an opportunity to focus my attention there.

Uncharted Territory speaks of charting a course through time and space, whilst experiencing the journey as separate moments, each complete within itself, yet combining into one: the character of each moment informing the character of the whole.

It also implies that we can only touch little bits of ‘heaven’. However one views it, it is too all-encompassing to comprehend. All we can do is segment it, compartmentalise it and try to make sense of the pieces we can grasp.

There is a central piece in this work which, if upturned, still meets to continue the rhythmic path. This has a beautiful symbolism to me – the central element speaking clearly of how we may intend to take one path on our journey but end up taking another. This is still part of the original journey and works in a manner we cannot envisage at the time: it only becomes clear when viewed with perspective.

Each of these parts can be read on their own. When you do this you see that despite there being an overall ‘colour’ or ‘feel’, each is unique with identifiable elements: some are quiet and dreamy, some speak of submerged obstacles, some of bright moments of epiphany – as happens in life. Then, widening our perspective, each group of four creates a harmonious whole too. Gradually we piece together the moments to make sense of what we are, and where we are going.

In my work I often explore the energy contained in a moment in time or a fragment of thought. I see an intense aliveness within these fragments – they are the space between the atoms – a bridge between form and formlessness. With Uncharted Territory it is not just one moment in time that I am exploring, but many moments and their interactions, the effect they have on one another, and their overall flavour.

I hope you enjoyed my painting's journey - and I would love to hear yours too.

Regions of the Heavens exhibition, Gippsland Art Gallery. Works by Deborah Milligan

Friday, January 28, 2011

Contemporary Art from the Iron Age

I have had another epiphany - I shall call it 'a contemporary epiphany' - but this time I dont know what it means! I know it will deeply affect my art practice - but how, I cannot yet tell.

It was at the National Museum: Archeology, in Dublin which I visited recently. There are a number of objects in this rich collection which are making me rethink my understanding of contemporary art practice and aesthetics. 

One was a small golden model of a boat made during the Iron Age in the 1st Century BC, part of the Broighter Hoard. It is what I would have - before this visit - thought of as a strikingly contemporary design. Its simplicity of form and exquisite aesthetic made my mouth water and my heart melt. It was not even as big as my hand, delicate and unbearably beautiful. If I saw this in a jewllers window in Barcelona or London today I would marvel at its contemporary design. How can something this old look so funky? What is it that travels so well through time? And what does this say about 'cutting edge' art today?

Golden model of a boat from the Broighter Hoard, 1st Century BC
Another piece that struck me was a riveted bronze cauldron from the late Bronze Age, dated around 700 BC. It is quite large, about half a metre in diameter. It was almost the first object I saw as I walked into the museum and honestly, my heart quickened and I felt a surge of excitement. It was a powerful, visceral reaction. I was struck simultaneously by - again - what I saw as a strinking contemporary aesthetic, and an overwhelming sense of history. Centuries of human usage, day to day contact with this beautiful, simple, yet deeply significant artefact. Both a household tool and a ritual object. I was struck by its integrity - the combination of form and function, beauty and necessity. It is formed from plates and sheets of bronze which have been riveted together. The rivets themselves are stunning with sharply conical heads which, apart from being highly decorative, would also have helped to collect the heat and hasten the boiling process. Form and function, beauty and necessity.

Bronze cauldron from Castlederg, County Tyrone. Late Bronze Age.

The ancient vessel form and the simple clarity of the repetitive rivets give it a powerful presence that, quite literally, took my breath away.

These two objects, along with the fine examples of Bronze Age golden jewellery, left me with an overwhelming sense of our commonality. It was simple to see, indeed to feel, the unbroken thread of humanity through all these works.

Gold gorget. Late Bronze Age.

To imagine oneself as a woman, or man, in 900 BC wearing these decorations, to desire them in the same way, to know that wish to adorn ones body and make a statement about power, beauty and priviledge. To look through the eyes of an artisan in 100 BC making a simple object of beauty and deep symbolism, to see through their eyes and witness the mark of their hands. And to see how - despite all our scientific and technological advances, all our modernity, our creativity and artistic advances - a simple crafted object from 2,000 years ago can look so incredibly contemporary! That strikes to my very soul and I dont think I will ever look at my own practice in the same way again.

How can I call myself a contemporary artist when this small boat strikes me as the epitome of modern design? It is thousands of years old for heavens sake! No wonder so many artists become caricatures of themselves trying to be 'new' and 'different' as if that is enough in itself.

Simple forms - the vessel being a fine example - clear craftsmanship, exquisite attention to detail and a certain sense of integrity. I think these are constants in 'good art'.
There is much more to be thought, but that will have to guide me for now! I would love to hear your thoughts on this as I am just going around in circles!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Unilever Series by Ai Weiwei

It's been a while since my last entry as I have been busy travelling and have found it hard to post. Mainly because it is tricky seperating my son from his laptop long enough to use it! So here's a very quick bit of inspiration. I went to the Tate Modern in London last week and was deliciously floored by The Unilever Series by Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei. It is an installation made of of millions of hand crafted porcelain sunflower seeds poured into the Turbine Gallery. I do wish I was able to visit in the first few days when the audience was allowed to walk on the installation - but alas that is no longer allowed due to 'dangerous dust'. Sigh. It is nonetheless an inspirational artwork and exciting concept. Check it out.  The exhibition includes a fascinating video following the porcelain seeds being created, as well as providing an opportunity for visitors to ask Ai Weiwei questions about the installation via video.