Judy Millar: The Sinew of Space
by Jodie Dalgleish | published 12.02.18
Judy Millar lives in Auckland, New Zealand and Berlin, Germany. She is one of New Zealand's most internationally recognised artists, and her work was exhibited in the national pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. The Luxembourg-based writer and artist Jodie Dalgleish responds to the abstract world within Millar's paintings, exhibited at her representing gallery in Zurich, Mark Mueller, from 26th of October to 23rd December 2017, and to the artist's long-standing motivation to activate and engage three-dimensional space through her work.
It’s frustrating to her, Judy Millar tells me from the West Coast of Auckland as we discuss her exhibition in Zurich, Swallowed in Space, that people are so rarely asking ‘what does painting do to us?’ 1 . An affective painting, after all, is something we want to go and see, and revisit, and make part of our wider experience. I wholeheartedly agree with her, especially after having just travelled to see her work (from my current home in Luxembourg) and encountering the way it not only activates space but also allows the kind of ‘space creation’ current in philosophy, cultural geography and advanced architectural research 2.
In Gallery Mark Mueller, Swallowed in Space comprises five, large, entire-body, paintings, effectively distributed around a spacious gallery, the side wall of which opens through glass doors onto a courtyard. Each painting is vital in the way it moves itself, directionally, within and beyond its stretcher, circling with the next. And in pairings on the building’s axial wall, as well as the gallery’s back wall, they activate each other even more closely. The experience is extraordinary, as if they compress and release movement individually and together, to circulate my own movement within them always outwards—not only from the paintings into the gallery but also from the gallery into an always potentially broader discussion, and material experience, of bodily-felt space.
Engrossed in the exhibition’s spatial effect, I begin to realise that I am naturally embodying the paintings’ own quest for, and questioning of, modes of movement. Each painting is an intense material object based on movement, while it is also a container that circulates and throws me more broadly into an exploration of the space that emanates from it. ‘Space’ here, is a body-dwelt ‘imaginal’ field. It is the field projected from the body into a ‘spacious view’ of the ‘increasing inclusiveness’ of its expanding boundaries, as philosopher Edward Casey writes of place that has become more spacious in Western thought. In this kind of space, Casey writes, ‘expanding envelopments’ are all linked by the organic body and its history in the ‘fuller compass’ of what is happening, and at stake, in and from a particular place 3.
Essential to my experience, is the fact that each painting’s sinuous forms continue in striated bands that curve, twist, turn and loop seemingly without end. As I follow them, they always release their coiled directions onwards, even if only through a series of drips, a finger drag or the suggestion of an aspirating colour. They are not brushstrokes, but rather a skilfully indeterminate ‘caricature,’ or parody, of such a singular gesture. Their banding is almost collographic in nature: a result of the artist’s characteristic mark making that accumulates the positive and negative impressions of paint in the push and drag of objects across the painting’s surface. ‘I was trying to think of something like a very big fingertip,’ the artist tells me as she describes the way in which she slid differently-sized bags filled with sand through the paint. They allowed complex forms of movement, she explains, ‘and they have this particular feeling.’ For me, their form is fibrous, elemental and constant, like bands of tendon, muscle fibres, the phloem tissue of bark, and the cellulose cordage of plants. They seem to hold painting and movement together. 4
Then, I see that each painting’s spatial action comes not only from its curving ‘brushstrokes’ but also from the possibilities of colour. Framed ‘colour focal fields,’ as I call them with Millar’s approval, become characteristic of the work and precipitate formal interactions that are constantly backgrounded and foregrounded in layers of painterly detail. I am constantly trying to recalibrate what I am seeing—in shifts of scale between what is ‘big’ and what is ‘small,’ for example, and in what each colour, or colour melange, is. I am constantly recalibrating my bodily sense of direction in colour too: most notably when, in the largest painting of the axial wall, the ‘same’ dark, and light, focal colours are able to both advance and recede. Always, there is a surprising space of movement being made, not only in the works’ material specificities but also as a coalescence in the exhibition’s singular spatial effect.
For Millar, the practice of painting is a constant, and, while she takes breaks from a ‘toxic’ studio, so is the making of small three dimensional paper models of installation-based works (which she calls ‘space works’), whether they end up built, or not. They’re going on together all the time,’ she says, and ‘thoughts move between the two.’ Small colour studies are a constant too. ‘There is just something that happens between a group of colours,’ she says, and it is her response to this that drives her painting in the end. ‘Every colour demands a new activity,’ she explains, and she must find a way to ‘open’ each one to what it might do. Fortunately, for her, she tells me, there are a lot of colours in the world, and seemingly limitless opportunities to insert one colour, or colour field, into the next, and ‘find what happens.’
There is something of the Antipodean in Millar’s colours, for me. In them, I find the luminous intensity of the New Zealand landscape, while I also find the subtle and constantly variable colouration of its rhythms: the coming in and going out of light, water and dirt. Painting them all on Auckland’s West Coast, the artist tells me, her search for possible colour has been processed through that place. ‘These paintings admit to that,’ she says. Yet in her colour, I also see a world of experimentation kick-started by the synthetic innovation of pigments and spun out, as an omnipresent kind of preoccupation, in multiple media.
Standing in Millar’s exhibition in Zurich, I do see the work of another Antipodean and not someone European. But I also see the way her non-European perspective allows her to reflect on an artistic heritage that is not directly her own and go about her practice in an interesting, if not advantageous, way. Particularly evident to me, is the kind of hyper-attention to Art History that operates in the space of the Antipodean and that seems to somehow compress history, from a certain distance, in the context of Europe. I see her paintings as able to open a view towards multiple spatial possibilities, through a bodily experience of the expansive project of her work.
As a student in her twenties, Millar tells me, painting was so unfashionable and difficult that she had almost given it up. Desperate to leave New Zealand to try and find out what she was going to do, she took an Italian government scholarship to study in Turin, with the work of Spatialist Lucio Fontana as her topic. She always jokes, says Millar, that studying Fontana was an excuse to go to Italy, but she was actually interested in his work and visited a re-presentation of one of his ‘spatial environments’ at the contemporary art museum Castello di Rivoli near Turin. In discussing this with her, I note Fontana’s ‘spatial concept’ of a work of art as a synthesis of colour, movement and sound in space, which I did find relevant to her work. She also notes her subsequent interest in a ‘total work of art,’ as it was named by composer Richard Wagner and as she finds it in her belief that paintings can be active as if sound, voice and body is there. As if space is there.
There is a compression of life achieved, Millar says, in the paintings she went to see in Italy, taking the train every weekend and staying in the cheapest hotels. Their ‘magic,’ she explains to me, is that they take what seems to be a full range of life and compress it into an ‘imaginative space’ held by something almost non-existent. ‘It wasn’t just Giotto,’ she says, referring to her often-cited visit to see his 28 frescoes of the life of St Francis installed around the Upper Church of the Assisi Chapel. But in our discussion of it, I sense something of what she found: the narrative it opened, particularly to her as a, less familiar, non-European; its own minimal architecture of small caricature-like objects and big skies acting in a broader architectural space; and the intense physicality of its paint. What she also found, was her belief that contemporary, non-figurative, painting must, at least, be able to try and approach the making of such illusionistic yet believable space.
Millar does not paint in discrete series of works, she tells me, but rather carefully selects from a larger body of work for each exhibition, with the use of scale-models. Nevertheless, it is notable to me that Swallowed in Space is the first exhibition title to explicitly include the word ‘space.’ In what we might call ‘tableaux,’ I have the distinct sensation that the artist’s consistent concern with the form and complexity of space is reaching a point of culmination, even in terms of her ‘space works.’ Gathering in the gallery, for me, is not only a glimpse of the spatiality of the likes of Fontana and Giotto but also my imagination of Millar’s Venice Biennale installations of 2009 and 2011—their coincident compression and expansion of architectural and personal space. 5
‘When I was young,’ Millar tells me, ‘I used to try to understand if we could actually see space.’ For space, she says, is something ‘we infer through our understanding of the world as much as we see it; it is automatically an accumulative thing.’ Such thoughts on space also occurred to me in the gallery, I tell her, in the words of Humanist Geographer Yi-fu Tuan, whose experiential perspective flows into contemporary cultural geography’s discourse on space. Fundamental to Tuan, as it was for me, is his belief that our body, as we move in it, accumulates our lifelong experience of space as sensation, perception and conception. ‘We live in space,’ Tuan says, ‘and space is given by the ability to move.’ 6 All spatial modes and concepts are based on individual experience and rooted in life’s fundamental pact between the moving body and its space. 7
Millar has often talked about her own distinct experience of space while working on a painting that is flat on the ground. In her interview with Ocula in 2016, for example, she mentions building a ‘dome-like’ space above the canvas. 8 Although, Millar explains to me that it’s not explicitly a ‘dome,’ but rather a space in which she paints not only the surface of the painting, or laterally beyond the painting’s frame, but also the space, or ‘air,’ above it, in a merging of multiple dimensions at once. As I experience her works in the imaginal field of my body, I tell her, I seem to have a similar sensation of this ‘space,’ as a kind of body memory and knowledge of space.
‘People used to say to me,’ says Millar, ‘Oh, you’re the painter that does this,’ while they moved the flat of their hand up and down in the space in front of them. That irritated her at first, but then, she thought instead that ‘if people are moving bodily, as if they are remaking the work for themselves, then that is a good thing.’ I say that what she is offering the viewer, is painting as a bodily experience of space, and she agrees. What her paintings have opened to me, is the ‘espacement’ (to use a term of Casey’s) that occurs in a place of space within which, I, as the embodied subject, receive and enact ‘the spatial invention of its gestures.’ 9
As a result of experimenting with different techniques and finding new ways to move paint, Millar says that her work has changed a lot in the last two or three years. ‘I found a way to penetrate the surface somehow and build much more open and complex space,’ she tells me. ‘It was as if a gust of wind had gone through them and they’d blown open.’ This is part of the exhibition’s culmination of ‘Space’ for me as a viewer, even though it is not for Millar who is always making more work. And although Millar tells me that she intends titles to bring in referents that reinforce the exteriority of her painting (in contrast to any inwardly-turned automatic process), she does say that her use of the term ‘Space’ could indicate that after ‘trying to really develop the space in the works’ for ten years, this has, to some extent, been achieved.
In my experience of Millar’s work, I am gathering dialogues on space similarly concerned with the nature of space and space-making. Building on the bodily centre of Tuan’s research, there is also Contemporary Cultural Geographer and poet Tim Cresswell’s notion of space as brought into existence by acts that accumulate and configure the essential material of a ‘white’ space, in the way words bring narratives to life on the page of a poem. 10 For Cresswell, as it is for me in my experience of Millar’s paintings, the place of space —in movement—is a singular gathering, or assemblage, of object, memory, history, discourse and possible futures. 11 Experiencing Millar’s paintings, in the way that Cresswell describes a poem, I move with material, which is itself acted upon, to see something of the ways in which space works for the painting, and the painting for space. 12
I become a protagonist of space, both in the gallery with Millar’s paintings and as I move around Zurich the following day. Continually, I relate my ‘body space’ to its description in Fabian Neuhaus’s advanced research into the spatio-temporal dimensions of life in a city. In this context, everyday movement in the body is the basis of the enacted narratives of space that create a ‘spatial inscription’ of the city. Continually, I relate to Neuhaus’s idea of the ‘body extension’ that we experience as we move in the ‘rhythmic constitution of the body in mind’ in, even multi-centred, fields of self-and-city space. 13 As notably happens, while I am sitting in an exhibition at the Helmhaus Museum, not far from Mark Mueller Gallery, listening to the late Swiss artist Peter Schweri’s Peter plays for Stellar, in circling motifs held, mostly, in the right piano-hand for 75 minutes. Then, I have the acute sensation that something like Millar’s dome is being inscribed, from her exhibition out and across both works in space.
Millar says she has had similar experiences on two notable occasions. The first was on seeing Mondrian’s paintings in Amsterdam and coming out of the museum to find her visualisation of space completely changed, as if she was moving in the extended scope of his work and the city from above. The second, was on seeing big Polke paintings for the first time in a gallery in New York and being ‘blown away.’ Coming out mid-town and finding a squished orange on the footpath, it was as if the entire city was being sucked into it, in one extraordinary sensation.
Common to us through the advent of her exhibition of paintings, it seems there is—for the artist whose movement was part of making space and myself as the protagonist embodying my conception of its spatial field—always the opportunity to make more of space. In and from the paintings of Swallowed in Space, there is a continual circulation of modes of movement that extend, through the instinctually familiar, imaginal field of the material body, into an expanded sensation and occupation of the complexity of space. Opening and expanding in Millar’s paintings is a practice of space-making as an ongoing search and facility across atmospheres, exposition and events: a search for something of the stuff, the bodily sinew, of space.
Coming up, Millar will be having her first ever survey exhibition, at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen east of Zurich, in 2019. Bringing together new and past works, the exhibition will occur in that contemporised neo-classical space, possibly alongside other exhibitions drawn from a broad range of collection works. I will want to go and see it, to move in its space.
1. All quotes from a conversation between the artist and the writer, by Skype, on 16 December 2017, unless stated otherwise.
2. Here I use the term of Fabian Neuhaus (see note xiii), but I will use my own term of ‘space-making’ to describe, more generally, the same concept as I find it in my referenced texts.
3. Edward Casey, The Fate of Place: A philosophical history (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 331-332, 335-340. ‘Imaginal’ is the word Casey attributes to Gaston Bachelard’s study in The Poetics of Space: p. 295.
4. Millar mentions her ‘caricature of the brushstroke,’ in her interview with Robert Leonard in 2005: http://judymillar.com/2011/10/10/robert-leonard-talks-to-judy/ .
6. Yi-fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Eighth Printing, 2001), pp. 3, 8, 12.
7. Yi-fu Tuan, ‘Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective’ in Philosophy in Geography, eds. Stephen Gale and Gunnar Olsson, (Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), p. 389.
8. Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers, ‘A Conversation with Judy Millar,’ Ocula, 13 June 2016, https://ocula.com/magazine/conversations/judy-millar/.
9. Here I have co-opted Casey’s term with which he explores a person’s experience of the expansion of built architecture into spatial events: p. 315.
10. Tim Cresswell, ‘Topo-poetics: Poetry and Place’ PhD diss., Royal Holloway University of London,2015, https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/25313757/Complete_poems.2015.final_signed.pdf, pp. 22–42. Note that on page 28, Cresswell, erroneously, I believe, discounts painting as able to work with space in a similar way to a poem because he perceives of it as an all-over covering of white space, or the blank canvas.
11. Tim Cresswell, ‘Place,’ in The SAGE Handbook of Human Geography (London: SAGE, 2014), pp. 6–19.
12. Tim Cresswell, ‘Topo-poetics: Poetry and Place,’ p. 32.
13. Fabian Neuhaus, Emergent Spatio-temporal Dimensions of the City: Habitus and urban rhythms, (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2015), pp. 37–52. Direct quote: p. 40.
Judy Millar is one of New Zealand’s most internationally recognised artists. Since 2005 she has shared her time between Auckland and Berlin. Highlights of her career include two exhibitions at the Venice Biennale; representing New Zealand with her solo exhibition Giraffe-Bottle-Gun (2009); and in the collateral event Time, Space, Existence (2011); inclusion in Rohkunstbau, Berlin (2010) and solo exhibitions at the Auckland Art Gallery (2002) and the IMA, Brisbane (2013). Her paintings are held in all major public collections in New Zealand and in several international collections including the Kunstmuseum St Gallen and Tichy Foundation in Prague.
Jodie Dalgleish is a writer, artist and musician currently based in Luxembourg. As a museum curator, writer and critic for over a decade in New Zealand, she has been published in art historical and literary journals, as well as online. Returning to a full-time artistic and literary practice, she is interested in the ‘cogent sensorial experience of art’ across genres and media, including the application and development of the sonic arts.