Issue Number: 104
Lisa Milroy RA’s images of geishas came alive for her as she searched for a studio, but she is best known for intensely lifelike paintings of household objects which, in her new show, literally come off the wall, writes Fiona Maddocks.
Lisa Milroy RA in her studio in London’s East End with paintings she has been hanging from the washing lines stretched across the ceiling. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe From Lisa Milroy’s front door, you can see the gleaming white towers of London’s New Jerusalem – Canary Wharf. Her studio occupies what was once a community centre built by Victorian philanthropists. Next door is a 1960s council block and further off, the sleek urban arabesque of a Docklands Light Railway station.
Without you having to move an inch, an illustrated manual of London’s architecture is laid before you. Go inside and you enter another world, with windows set so high in the walls you can’t see out of them. Neither can passers-by stare in. You could be anywhere.
The atmosphere – stylish and loosely ordered, part warren, part cloister – is that of a benign fortress with a tiny, sunken ‘backyard’, as she calls the pretty hidden patio. That’s how Milroy likes it: a timeless, silent domain where she both lives and works, painting around the clock as she pleases, punctuating her hours of labour with good coffee or a humdrum domestic task before carrying on, renewed. Whatever the weather, she turns on the daylight strip lighting to keep a constant level of brightness, with white blinds lowered over barred windows. Within this protective calm, Milroy works prodigiously.
‘This all-in-one life hasn’t always been so. For years I kept home and studio separate, living in Islington and biking to Shoreditch, where I shared a building with other artists. But the lease ran out and, seven years ago, I had to find somewhere new.’ The studio space is square, quite empty, her materials stacked on a white wheeled palette resembling a huge tea trolley. The old parquet floor is hidden by paint-splattered hardboard and a white curtain screens off a storage area.
There’s a serenity and playful intent about Milroy, a delicate-featured Canadian who has a penetrating gaze. The eldest of three children, she came to London as an art student in the 1970s. ‘Having grown up in Vancouver in the 1960s and 70s, I had almost no experience of European art face to face. But I loved it, simply from looking at images in books. What a discovery, when I arrived in London aged 19 and stood in front of many of those paintings for the first time at the National Gallery.’
At Central St Martins and then Goldsmiths she became part of a group of young artists influenced by their teachers, Michael Craig-Martin and Basil Beattie, both fellow RAs, and Tony Carter. That group, precursors of the Young British Artists, included Julian Opie, Stephen Taylor Woodrow and Andrew Carnie. Yet Milroy has always valued her independence. (She is in a long-term, long-distance partnership which, she says, is a perfect and happy solution.)
So when she was elected an RA in 2005, a time of change and some upheaval at Burlington House, she was surprised, delighted and a little wary. ‘At that time I didn’t have much connection with the RA, except to visit its fabulous shows. The most rewarding and gratifying aspect of being nominated is that you are acknowledged by fellow artists. I still find it amazing to receive evidence, in whatever form, that my paintings are being looked at and appreciated.’
Her best-known pictures – the huge white canvases of immaculately painted geishas (so sharp in detail you think they must be holding their breath) or the grids of objects, such as shoes or drawer handles – celebrate life’s details with the passion of a taxonomist. Reproductions give an idea of the context of her works but only in the flesh can you see the sensuously worked textures that make them sing.
She applied the same eye for detail to finding somewhere to live and work. ‘I’ve always worked in the East End so when I had to relocate to a new studio, it seemed natural to look for an alternative in east London. It took four months to find my present studio. I don’t drive, so I would choose a neighbourhood and set off exploring on my bike or hire minicab drivers to take me round their patch – they were the guides with the most helpful information about an area.’
Throughout her studio search Milroy felt a strong need to keep connected to painting. ‘It’s terrifying to let go of a studio, quite unnerving. To maintain a link, and also amuse myself, I began to make thumbnail sketches – in my A-Z and on estate agents’ handouts – of geishas that featured in the Japanese prints on which I had recently based some paintings. Soon these geishas morphed into a troupe of geishas of my own design and kept me company during my search. When I finally found my studio and moved in, the first paintings I made were of these geishas – they demanded it!’
Milroy visits Japan often: ‘It is the most visually engaging place I’ve ever been to, and the most foreign.’ Not understanding Japanese language or culture, and the emotional displacement that provokes, is partly what she found compelling. The tension between façade, whether of an Oriental interior or a London landscape or a child’s face, and what lies behind, is an unspoken theme in her work. She has explored these ideas with rich variety through what she calls her ‘fast painting’ and ‘slow painting’, self-explanatory terms.
Her new show at Alan Cristea ‘Life on the Line’, which opens this month, explains why there are washing lines stretched across her studio. A number of canvases in three groups – clothing, landscape, black and white – will be on show, suspended from the ceiling rather than hanging on walls. The ‘clothes’ paintings include a child’s party dress, a Brownie uniform, Milroy’s own work clothes. Other images include wigs, shoes, a boat suspended above water, a landscape of mountains and lakes. Across the gallery, a large oil painting of an armchair will lean against a wall. All these works are saturated with layers of paint, suggesting meanings both above and below the surface.
What does it all signify? ‘You could call it a depiction of self, an embodiment of some of the selves that make up a person – what you keep as you move through life, or what keeps you. As the gallery visitor walks back and forth in front of the banners exploring the images, one comes into view and another is obscured. Turning around to look at the armchair painting, perhaps the visitor then feels a sense of stillness.’
Out of these emotional still lifes, Lisa Milroy has created memories that are universal.