Reading paintings and poetry
Astrid Lorange

Published version:

Currently, my research has me asking the simple question: what happens when we read
paintings as poems? Not as though they were poems, to be sure, but in the manner that we
read poems. Reading paintings in this way, I am beginning to find, offers a way of thinking
about contemporary painting practice that suits the complex mediatic processes from which it
emerges and to which it contributes. By this I mean, reading a painting as a poem can be an
opportunity to think about the coming-to-be-made of the material, conceptual — and, I would
argue, literary — aspects of painting in the context of what is often referred to as a ‘postdigital’
media environment.

So far, I’ve been interested in the paintings of a particular artist: Clare Milledge, from Sydney,
Australia. Milledge’s work centres around the technique Hinterglasmalarei, popular in the
nineteenth-century and which involves the application of paint and/or the removal of paint
from the reverse side of glass. In addition to the glass paintings, Milledge works sculpturally,
using wood, hessian, silk, wool, and other (usually organic) materials to produce
environments/arrangements in which the paintings are situated. Text plays a critical role in her
work; many of her paintings include text, and the titles she chooses for individual works and
collections are decidedly discursive, contributing to the ongoing development of a set of
philosophical investigations that preoccupy Milledge in her practice as it transforms over time
(these preoccupations include conversations with Georges Bataille, moments of exchange with
friends, critiques and parodies, and so on). The relationship between the text in the paintings
and the paratextual content that accompany them is key to her work’s overall literariness; the
text-work made visually and contextually ‘painterly’ speak back to the more polemical, though
often still phrase-based or fragmentary provocations of the titles and collection names.
Together, the discursive components make something like a statement of poetics; a critical
orbit in which the work orients itself towards an engagement that is, perhaps above all,

In Milledge’s most recent work, the textual content is, while no more central than in previous
work, slightly different. If her earlier work has tended towards using text in the form of phrases
and fragments with intentionally unrevealed origins or sources, her new series of paintings use
text harvested directly from the phone-based dating app Tinder, reframing a long list of users’
‘About Me’ information in alphabetical order, producing a kind of abecedary of first-lines by
prospective dates—importantly, all men. The text is handwritten in Milledge’s very
recognisable style (upper case letters, irregular but consistent), and retains the spelling and
punctuation of the original. No other data—user name, age, etc.—is included. The first two
paintings in this series are Self-Reflexive Critique: Alpha Mu (fig. 1, a larger, site-specific window
installation, featuring lines beginning with the letters A through to M minus I) and Self-
Reflexive Critique: Iota (fig. 2, a smaller, stand-alone painting featuring lines with the first letter
of the first word beginning with ‘I’). Both works were installed in the University of Technology
Sydney’s gallery for the show Mnemonic Mirror, curated by Kylie Banyard and Gary Carsley.
The alphabetical conceit is clear in the works’ subtitles, and the shared title gets to the heart of
this project’s textual concern: the unaltered but carefully selected collation of users’ profile
bylines presented, without comment, as their own immanent critiques—unintentional but
super functional critiques of masculinity, entitlement, ego, and desire.

Reading these works as poetic sequences, we might read the lines as cohering to make a long,
constraint-based text in which a certain degree of authorial intervention (the choice of certain
texts in alphabetical order) is mediated by factors outside Milledge’s control (the algorithms
that determine who Milledge is matched with on Tinder, the text that the matches write). The
alphabetisation generates expectation, a structural assonance; it also effects an index, a kind
of bureaucratic or administrative document that registers diversity and commonality among
instances of self-presentation. As poetic sequence, then, it is a variety of epic (because it aims
in its very concept to be complete) that stages a small drama: accumulating an ever-increasing
cast of players who, in their one line each, reveal an ecology of masculinities. Some lines are
perfunctory: “Am single”; “From London”; “Looking for fun”. Some are demanding: “Straight
teeth a must”; “No selfish girls, no busy girls”; “Don’t do drama”. Some try for humour, others
absurdity. As a collection, they represent an oddly profound capture of the range of coded
expressions that constitute hetero dating vernacular. The performance of masculinity moves
between affects of anxiety, aggression, desperation, delusion and entitlement; a set of feelingtypes
that together form a dynamic of suppression and overtness that corresponds to
naturalised notions of straight male desire. If a poem is a genre of text especially concerned
with the processes by which language comes to mean in highly specific situations, then the
poem is a reminder of how specific meanings become general truths through the repeated,
habitual and naturalised use of language; not through leading by example (though perhaps
that argument could be made elsewhere) but by emphasing the writtenness of what comes to
be known as the poem itself. In the case of Milledge’s works, the poems emphasise the written
dimension of the lines as both individually-authored (because written by a large number of
unwitting collaborators) and generically-inflected (because written in the genre of the dating
profile bio and because written in normative ‘straight romance’ vernacular). One’s being
reminded of the writtenness of what might otherwise be assumed interior expression, that is,
being reminded of the historic-generic forms through which expression takes place, is, I argue,
at the centre of the experience of reading a poem.

A sequence, of course, not only implies order (as both arrangement and rightness-of-place),
but also a sense of duration, which in turn produces a variety of story (if not quite a narrative).
Ordering in a sequence, to paraphrase the poet-critic Eileen Myles, is the signal gesture of
fiction; a poem’s fictionality is in the way it uses order to both disclose and obscure meaning, to
build or cut, to break or follow-on. But there is another way to read sequence, as that which
collects variations of a singularity, a collection of ones that are at once irreducible to one
another and yet functionally (perhaps even ontologically) identical. To read a sequence is to
read then in these two modes, ‘counter-rationally’ (to borrow Keston Sutherland’s term); the
poem that moves through time in an odd, slight epic, linked by accumulation, and the poem
that bounces on the same spot (as though timeless) occasioning infinite variations of a
singularity. A perfectly dialectical poem is impossible, and so, the poem is a contradiction of its
own terms, productively so—the poem remains at odds with itself. Reading Milledge’s painting
as poems, the poetic sequence is emphatic in its artifice: the language is obviously
appropriated, the lettering bears witness to the effort of large-scale and manual transposition,
the ordering is constraint-based, the materiality of the language (letters on a plate of glass or
window) engages surfaces at once transparent and reflective, and the semantic context of the
work (in a gallery, as a ‘painting’) implicates the ambient and contingent factors that condition
the text and its readability. Standing to read, then, Milledge’s paintings in the space of the
gallery, becomes the final performative gesture of the work’s emphasis: the body that
becomes aware of the publicness of its reading, and the body that understands reading to be a
critical, iterative activity—an activity productive of knowledge in excess of its interpretation,
and an activity both counter-rational and exceptionally meaningful in the context of
contemporary mediatic complexity.

Astrid Lorange is a writer, editor and teacher from Sydney, Australia. She lectures in history and
theory at UNSW Art & Design, and runs the critical art talk series Conspiracy at Minerva Gallery
in Potts Point. She is one half of the collaboration Snack Syndicate. How Reading is Written: A
Brief Index to Gertrude Stein was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2014. Poetry
chapbooks include Ex (Stale Objects dePress), Minor Dogs (bas-books) and Eating and
Speaking (TPRP).