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