Tom Melick in
NGV Triennial catalogue: Pt 2 Illuminations
p 136 - 149
Note to the reader: The purpose of an annotated bibliography is to evaluate the relevance and quality of various texts as they pertain to a topic or research question. It should provide an overview of what has already been said and is usually written at the beginning of a project. Here, animated by the work of Clare Milledge, the bibliography disobeyed me and became the project. Compiled from conversations with the artist or acting on a hunch, I have had no choice but to accept what follows as stubbornly incomplete, speculative, wayward and contradictory – that is, to accept these annotations as alive. Which is another way of wondering about the curious chattering between text and image, the work of writing and the work of art. I have organised them alphabetically, but they can be read in any order.
Bataille, G., The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, Zone Books, New York, 2009.
Events that speak for themselves must still be spoken. In the spring of 1940 Nazi Germany invades France. Five months later a dog called Robot and its human companions discover Lascaux near the village of Montignac in southwestern France. On the walls are 2000 or so paintings and drawings made with pulverised pigments and charcoal depicting animals, human-animal hybrids, handprints and geometric shapes (possibly symbols). In 1952, the philosopher Georges Bataille visits the cave. In 1963, one year after Bataille’s death, Lascaux is closed to the public due to damage and deterioration. In 1983, Lascaux II opens 200 metres from the original site. The second cave contains copies of the images painted approximately 17000 years ago, when it is said (with much debate) Homo floresiensis became extinct, leaving the world to Homo sapiens.
Lascaux was significant for Bataille, not least because of the total and claustrophobic destruction that surrounded its discovery (‘Light is being shed on our birth at the very moment when our death appears to us.’). According to Bataille, death itself was a central concern for those early artists; in particular an image of a bird-like figure deep in the pit of the cave, whose representation invites us to draw ‘a fundamental power from the contemplation of death, the power to live on par with death … expressed in the depths of the pit is the depth of religious unrest, which was born’. Lascaux II also confirmed what Bataille had written in 1927: ‘It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form’.1 For the philosopher, the works of art represented the ‘cradle of humanity’. In the midst of unspeakable violence, murder and ruination brought about by the Nazi war machine, Lascaux was a fantasised space of play that did not deny the presence of death. The cave painters chose to paint ‘in a deep and mysterious sanctuary, one might say at the deepest point in the bowels of the earth’ and in doing so intimately connected with animals and nature in a ‘religious mood or attitude’. Were the Lascaux paintings apparitions? Did they accompany hunting stories? Were they the stage sets for a Magdalenian theatre or the remains of magical rituals?
Clare Milledge’s studio is located in a self-contained section of a large warehouse filled with people who make costumes and props for the theatre. To get to her space you pass shelves of mannequins and half-constructed figures with missing limbs. Someone is working on gluing muscles made of foam to what looks like the skeletal structure of a dinosaur. Somebody else is practising ventriloquism with a stuffed shark. Milledge’s studio, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks like an installation. It is messy but the mess coheres: newspapers covering the floor, jars of hardened tree sap, half-sculptured blocks of beeswax, piles of hessian, silk and rope, old hardened coffee in a filter, a sewing machine, a metal bucket filled with paint scrapings, and her glass paintings: some unfinished and leaning against the walls, others wrapped up in thick paper and patchy fabric, like gifts.
When I leave her studio, on my way out of the warehouse, I pass someone working on a set of Paleolithic props – painted plastic made to look like a hammer stone, a flake, a hand axe. I take a photo with my phone. Later, I zoom in. The artistry is impressive, but the labour of making plastic resemble stone is surely considerable? Or is it harder to make a Paleolithic tool from stone than it is to mimic one with plastic and paint? I think of the two spaces – Milledge’s studio and the busy production of the prop warehouse – playing against each other like Lascaux and its replica. For Bataille, the paintings on the cave walls expressed a ‘burning presence’ and indecipherability. He was particularly intrigued why there were so few images of human figures compared to representations of animals, or human-animal hybrids. These paintings, he concluded, expressed an early attempt to ‘negate human life’ at the very point in which the conception of the human is born. The painters shared a poetic bond, now lost, with the animals and hybrid figures they conjured. Milledge, who conjures a ‘religious mood or attitude’ with her work, often returns to Bataille’s essays on Lascaux. I’ve seen this book on her shelf. It is rare to find a human form in her work that is not also part bird, or beast, or plant, or witch.
Breton, A., L’Art magique, vol. 4 of Oeuvres completes (1957), Gallimard, Paris, 2008.
Discourse, traceable for some back to the Greeks, problematised the experience of art as magic when it was called out as mimesis, imitation. Much of what is written about art is still caught up, in one way or another, with how to frame the experience of looking at an artwork, and therefore doubly caught up with problems posed by discourse. As it stands, it is easy to mistake the experience of discourse for the experience of art. This makes me sensitive to the fact that the most effective obstruction to experiencing images as a form of magic is an academic treatment of the subject. Breton said as much when he warned against magic becoming another ‘object of study’. To do so would be to join his ‘civilisation of professors’ who, ‘in order to explain to us the life of a tree, does not feel completely at ease until all the sap has been drawn from it’. Milledge’s paintings allow for magic by eluding discourse, escaping the categorising impulse of the academic gaze. Eluding, too, the researcher trying to organise the research.
Camille, M., The Gargoyles of Notre Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009.
The gargoyles atop the Notre Dame in Paris (or what remains of the cathedral after the fire on 15 April 15 2019) are monsters of modernity, not the Gothic creatures they are often thought to be. This reveals an intriguing truth, explored by Camille, in that to look back at the past is always to look through the imaginings of a particular present. Seems right. The gargoyles represent a nineteenth-century imagining of the Middle Ages. Camille claims that modernity, in all its historical ruptures, sought to reconstruct historical monuments as ‘unchanging symbols of an imagined past’. These gargoyles stand as reminders of the past as a construction of the present, substantiating Walter Benjamin’s intense thought: ‘For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’.2
Sometimes Milledge exhibits paintings leaning against the wall. Other times, and most often, she hangs them in place with small zoomorphic bronze objects she calls ‘close-readers’. These objects, which I see lying here and there on her studio table (no bigger than a pinky finger) or can be seen holding up the three paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Collection, recall shrunken gargoyles and chimeras found on the exteriors of medieval architecture: stone monsters that perform the double function of warding off demons and acting as rainspouts. Gargoyles and chimeras are always fantastical hybrids that scream, laugh, gloat or pensively stare out at the world (presuming it to be evil) as they go about keeping rainwater from soaking the walls of a building. The expressions of Milledge’s close-readers are harder to discern, but they too serve a double function. They take up shapes that resemble microbats, snakes, insects and other animate forms found in the bush, but they also hold up the glass painting and participate in the experience of looking – reading – the work. They offer a symbolic commentary on the image they support, willing us to read it closely. They recall the apotropaic symbolism of gargoyles but, standing in for the picture frame, allow glass to float on the wall. And if we could hear them speak what would they say? Would they sing in unison, like a Greek chorus, about the works they support? Would they argue? Would they speak in incantations for the future or the past?
Gell, A, ‘Technology and magic’, Anthropology Today, vol. 4, no. 2, 1988, pp. 6–9.
In asking what technology is, Gell defamiliarises distinctions between the technical and the magical: technology is more than the tools we invent and use as rational creatures; magic is more than a consequence of our inadequacy to explain and solve problems. Simple enough. But Gell then goes on to define the technical not as ‘an either/or distinction between production processes which do, or do not, make use of artefacts called “tools”.’ The technical refers to the entire spectrum of ingenious ways to achieve a desired result. ‘Techniques form a bridge, sometimes only a simple one, sometimes a very complicated one, between a set of given elements (the body, some raw materials, some environmental features) and a goal-state, which is to be realized making use of these givens.’ Defining the technical in this way quickly leads to the disintegration of distinctions between tool-orientated techniques used to obtain material needs, such as wielding an axe to procure food or thumbing an iPhone to order a pizza, and the more playful and expressive pursuits, such as dancing, singing, painting and writing.
And what of magic? It consists of ‘symbolic commentary’ on certain techniques, guiding the entire process. In the garden, to use Gell’s example, the person who casts a spell, says a prayer, or recites an incantation when tending to vegetables, inserts an ideal harvest into the craft of gardening. Magic frames practical techniques by going beyond them and behind them, working the imaginary back into the details of the activity, such as evoking apotropaic sayings when turning soil, sowing seeds, or encouraging vital entanglements of dirt, worm, plant, insect, weather, gardener. When it comes to magical images, an obvious example of ‘symbolic commentary’ that Gell mentions is advertising, since it ‘does not only serve to entice consumers to buy particular items; in effect, it guides the whole process of design and manufacture from start to finish, since it provides the idealised image to which the finished product must conform’. And once we start down this path, we have to wonder what processes do not involve some element of magic as Gell defines it, both for doing good and for doing bad, for manipulation and for protection, for constraining and for escaping those constraints. Because, approached in this way, magic has not disappeared and is not merely an aesthetic embellishment (as hard-nosed positivists would have it); it has instead become more diverse, assimilated into the techniques used to achieve particular outcomes, looping endlessly in the habituated experiences of any given day or image. Fantasies applied to techniques bring them to life and maintain what we like to refer to as the practical, the pragmatic, the real. If we do not see magic explicitly, suggests Gell, ‘it is because technology and magic, for us, are one and the same’. Magic, in its application, becomes invisible.
It is something in Gell’s formulation, general though it is, that conjures Milledge’s ecological approach to work, her forms and techniques, the way she handles materials, initiates collaborations, incorporates gestures, and stages exhibitions like theatre. I say ‘ecological’ because there is something very difficult about an atomised account of Milledge’s output: each artwork is better seen as one interconnected part of a system. I have a sense (a feeling) that writing about her work means entering this system; engaging with her materials, such as recycled textiles, paint rags, rope, wax, oil, tree sap, recycled glass, sound; her techniques, such as Hinterglasmalerei, or reverse painting on glass; as well as her themes, which unashamedly evoke a paganish cosmology and ecopolitical witching. I have a sense (a feeling) that it means thinking of theory not as a mode of ‘interrogation’ that tortures art for answers but which aspires to a form of proximity, theory alongside art, which is very much unfinished, for both art and theory, and not at all concerned with explanation. Art and theory as a ‘technology of enchantment’, as Gell puts it, where magic does not come after we have run out of ideas and explanations for our experiences with images and objects but forms the very force – the conjuring – of those images and objects.
Graves, R., ‘The Song of Amergin’, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), Faber and Faber, London, 2010.
A wildly imaginative and difficult book that rattles the origin stories of Western civilization as it uncovers the moment patriarchy tampered with mythology. Graves proposes matriarchal languages and myths were substituted for patriarchal versions. The sun replaced the moon as the supreme deity. Logic replaced magic. In late prehistory, argues Graves, matriarchal cultures worshipped a goddess; male gods were always subordinate to her as a son. The ‘patriarchal conquest’ – occurring at various points beginning in the second millennium BC – constructed myths and rituals to conceal this subjugation. ‘My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse…’
The Song of Amergin, translated and discussed by Graves, and which Milledge borrows from for her titles for the series Sacks of wind: a rock harder than rock, 2018, was an orally transmitted poem likely originating with the Celts before the Roman invasion of Britain (43 AD). It is a liturgical hymn and/or incantation that tells the story of Amergin, a god-like bard who recites the poem to harness nature and the weather to defeat an unnamed enemy (I am a wind: on a deep lake/ I am a tear: the Sun lets fall / I am a hawk: above the cliff…) All three works in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Collection are in some sense illustrations of this incantation. I am the queen: of every hive, I am the womb: of every holt and I am a hill: where poets walk (all 2018). But who is this “I” today? Perhaps it is now necessary to think of the weather as its own poet replying to the human-centered conceptions of the world (Western and patriarchal, to be sure). In all three works the moon appears, but in I am the queen: of every hive we see a distinctly vulval form. In light of Graves’ thesis, I see the stem of the leaf growing out of the white moon, intersecting with what appears to be two open legs. This is a repainting, perhaps, of Courbet’s famous L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) (1886). Milledge offers “the origin” as an abstraction, a painting for a time when the world is in the midst of some sort of end.
Lorange, A., ‘Reading paintings and poetry’, Blackbox Manifold, issue 16, 2016.
In Milledge’s works we read and see language as another material. Phrases and words from conversations, poems, literature, the occult, political ecology, feminist theory and even Tinder find their way into her paintings, either as titles or text-based works. While the interplay between the visual and the textual have long histories (often too overdetermined by the historical avant-garde, for these histories abound everywhere) Lorange suggests going the other way, where paintings can be read ‘in the manner that we read poems’. This suggestion of reading a painting as a poem is particularly helpful for thinking about an artist who approaches language as the material it is, sensuously handling it in order to move it beyond its instrumental applications, or allowing it to enter like a breeze through an open window: chance occurrences, erotic gaffes, academic bosh, and solecisms all seem to stick. Imagery and text are treated equally. Words become images and images words.
In paintings such as Self-Reflexive Critique: Alpha Mu and Self-Reflexive Critique: Iota (both 2016), ‘About Me’ descriptions on the dating app Tinder appear on glass in the form of alphabetically arranged lists. The identities – importantly all men – remain anonymous but their self-descriptions have jumped from the privacy of the screen and onto glass (or, from sort of glass to another). For example, in one sequence we read: ‘Just a man having a red hot crack at life/ Jus [sic] enjoying this crazy ride called life/ Just having a look/ Just heard of this … Don’t know if it really works/ Just people watching really/ Just want to meet some chilled drama free people’. As Lorange writes of these paintings, ‘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’. By turning the language of Tinder into a painting/poem/encyclopedic record, these self-descriptions, recontextualised and ordered, begin to appear as a cohesive image-poem. With their accompanying profile pictures omitted, Milledge approaches the language like a strange new data (that is, masculinity is seen for what is, suggesting that critique begins with recognising patterns).
Platonov, A., ‘Among animals and plants’ (1936), Soul: and Other Stories, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, afterword by John Berger, Vintage Books, London, 2013.
‘In the gloom of nature a man with a hunting rifle was walking through sparse forest.’ So begins Platonov’s short story about Fyodorov, a railway switchman (Platonov was a railway worker). Like most of Platonov’s work, the story is composed of what is said and what remains unsaid. It is a story about a railway worker (said) and it is also a story about Stalin’s labor camps (unsaid). Fyodorov watches ants carry an iron filing from the railway line, since ’it seems ants even need iron’. He picks up objects dropped from a passing train and tries to imagine the person it had belonged to, ‘and he would feel at peace only when he had formed in his imagination a clear picture of the unknown passenger who had hurtled by’. This is again echoed in Fyodorov’s reading habits. He ‘begins a book in the middle or at the end; he would read every other page or every third page; he would go through the book in all kinds of interesting ways, taking pleasure in the lofty thoughts of others and his own supplementary imagination’. Something about this way of reading, choosing pages at random – ‘now page 50, now 214,’ makes ‘the book even better, and still more interesting, because you have to imagine for yourself everything you have skipped, and you have to compose anew passages that don’t make sense or are badly written, just at if you too are an author …’
While dominant and official imaginations (a manifestation of patriarchy) terrorise, divide, compartmentalise, subjugate, dull and destroy, the supplementary imaginative act returns us to what we knew instinctively as children: the power to make the inanimate animate; the fright and the joy of imbuing life where others (adults) hear only words, or see only wood, cardboard, glass, cloth, data. The supplementary imagination does not need an invitation, and always presumes that something can be made with what one finds in the disorder of life. Not everything – be it doll, stuffed animal figurine or rock – is magically alive for children, but the possibility of life is always atmospherically present. Any object, without warning, can breath in this atmosphere and suddenly break into life, chatting away with secret plans, cures, spells, counter-spells, warnings.
Children, through play, imagine an ideal scenario where the necessary materials for a game have been rewritten, made malleable. Many of us have noticed that when a child receives a toy as a gift they are often drawn instead to the box that it comes in, the string, the wrapping paper. The rebuke of the intended gift can be read as a message sent from one world to another. In the adult world materials are often forgotten in the process of becoming something else (a gift, for example). In the world of the child any material touched by the imagination retains its materiality whilst becoming something else, and the less complicated the material the more quickly it can be put to use, start talking and listening, be assimilated into a game, reworked as a tool or a vehicle, or kept as a treasure to protect and be protected by. Like dreams (let us ignore Freud for a moment) these imaginations are a form of knowledge that shelters the non-rational from the rational, and Milledge’s paintings often aim for a similar experience. When an object is imbued with this imagination, it too resists easy interpretation, and need not be experienced in a particular order.
Röthel, H. K., Kandinsky: Paintings on Glass (Hinterglasmalerei), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1966.
The technique of painting in reverse on glass – known in German as hinterglasmalerei – reached modernism through Gabriele Münter and Vassily Kandinsky. It was Münter, Kandinsky’s partner and fellow member of Der Blaue Reiter, who began to collect glass paintings by amateur artists while travelling through rural Bavaria. Typically, these were small pictures of saints and biblical scenes that hung in homes, were sold in markets to supplement incomes, or given as gifts to family and friends. In other words, a very social and intimate form of spiritual image-making. It was this folkloristic spirituality that must have inspired Münter and Kandinsky (and, now, Milledge), since it had all the characteristics of a sincere and playful engagement with form. Here was a practice of embedding spiritual devotion into the medium, and the potential for art to offer moments of unashamed illumination, to join form and feeling, and connect the eye to what Kandinsky called the ‘inner vibrations’ of a painting. As Kandinsky wrote to Münter in an unpublished letter on January 31 1904, ‘The thing must ‘ring’, and through this ring one comes, slowly, to the content. This content, however, must never be too clear and simple; the more possibilities through fantasy the better’. Pure painting, as Kandinsky conceived of it, would speak directly to the soul of the viewer. Through form and colour, the picture would sneak past our intellectual defenses.
When I look at Milledge’s paintings leaning against the studio wall or in the museum, it is as though they have been squashed into existence and preserved behind glass. They offer images that can appear trapped and compressed, as though the glass has been placed on top of a picture that once held depth. A specimen made flat and abstract in its preservation. They are made, I learn, by painting in reverse. A pane of glass is placed against the wall or on the floor. Paint is applied in stages; shapes, figures, details and highlights are added, sometimes sections are scratched off, and the work is ‘finished’ with the background. Milledge then turns the glass around so that we see the image from the front. A strange effect! Bold and flat. Is this what drew Byzantine artists to this same technique when they represented saints? Or why, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, this technique became popular with religious folk artists in Central Europe? Or why, in the twentieth century, the technique again gained significance in pursuit of abstraction? What is it about this technique that lends itself to a belief in the power of images? For there is something about painting in reverse and on the surface of glass that is curious, and not at all straightforward.
One clue might come from the way glass, unlike canvas, interacts so obviously and intimately with light, capturing and imparting the very source of what makes the world visible. It is a material that has always seemed close to the imagination and the divine for its potential to capture, distort, refract and reflect light. When Gothic architecture, for example, began to use stone more ambitiously, larger and larger openings allowed for windows to speak. From sand, potash and powered metals came stories in coloured patterns and illuminated figures. Inside a cathedral, for instance, light enters through these figures as the presence of the divine, animating the image and imbuing it with divinatory power (even with all the cracks and breaks that came about during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, glass retained many of its mysterious and paradisiacal qualities). In Milledge’s paintings, divinatory connotations linger in these works, but only as a vestige, muddled and mixed with all sorts of competing references and clues. What we are left with are images that protect and project themselves through the material. It is as if they have suddenly appeared like a stranger’s face in the window or, as it happens most mornings, in the mirror.
Warburg, A., Aby Warburg: The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, trans. David Britt, The Getty Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles, 1999.
If we really look at images with the intensity we bestow, say, on a lover’s face, they have a habit of revealing hidden histories and associative links. Looking at these paintings leaning against Milledge’s studio wall, I think of early icons, where the act of devotion is embedded in the practice of representation (to make something is to feel closer to it). I think of the nineteenth century German physician and poet Justinus Kerner who began, with failing eyesight, to turn inkblots that spilt onto his pages into fantastical creatures (which he called ’Klecksopgraphs’); or of Léopold Survage preparing, in the early twentieth century, watercolour after watercolour for an imagined abstract colour film, before the technology to make such a film was available (Colored Rhythm: Study for the Film, 1913.) That is, I think of images that, even if ‘finished’, hold a tension between the pre-rational and the planned, and the possibility of continuous animation and transformation. Milledge’s practice relies on this potential for images to continue to speak beyond the moment of their exhibition, and in excess of any discursive treatment. She believes, I think, in the psychic energy of images, and works hard to point to, and elude, the discursive burdens placed on art, purposively cultivating the mythopoeic and the magical in her paintings, sculptures and performances.
All of this reminds me of what the German art historian (or ‘cultural scientist’) Aby Warburg called a history of art ‘with no fear of border guards’. In Warburg’s weird, wonderful and unfinished project, BilderAtlas Mnemosyne, begun in 1927, Warburg arranged a vast collection of images in clusters on fabric-covered panels. At the time of his death in 1929, there were sixty-three panels in all, presenting a history of art without text; constellations of images that brought together ancient cosmology, medieval Arabic and European Renaissance astrology, Lutheran Reformation, Mannerist festivals, the sacred dances of Native Americans, as well as newspaper clippings, postcards and advertising. The depictive quality of an image prompted associations with other images that would otherwise never meet or have the chance to ‘talk’. These arrangements (which he rearranged obsessively) were a method for invoking the past in the present, and conjuring the ‘afterlife of antiquity’ (he described the project as ‘ghost stories for adults’).
Words were not exactly absent from Warburg’s project; they instead formed a sort of spell. He framed the project in fragments, creating a ‘thought space’ (Denkraum) with writing which he considered a form of ‘conceptual magic’. These aphoristic formulas were meant to activate the reading of the panels he had meticulously prepared, but not explain them. As he wrote, ‘These images and words are help for those who come after me in their attempt to achieve clarity, and thus to overcome the tragic tension between instinctive magic and discursive logic. They are the confessions of an (incurable) schizoid, deposited in the archives of mental healers’. Arguably, a skewed version of Warburg’s project is realised every time we search for images on Google, where a phrase or word is run through a heavily protected algorithm like a spell, producing an array of images that may relate to each other according to subject, name, colour, size and so on. Yet this is a form of madness presented as clarity, an irrational dumping ground offered as an ordered, rational engine. Is there not work to be done in revealing the madness to any claim of a natural ordering of the world? It is, in my mind, the same sort of work as seeing madness as a form of clarity.
Alberti, On Painting (1435), trans. John R. Spencer, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1966.
In his 1435 treatise De pictura, Alberti famously instructed artists to ‘regard’ the frame of the painting as an open window. Considerable debate about what Alberti meant by this has ensued. Was the emphasis on a picture striving for mimesis with what one sees through the glass, or was Alberti referring to the immobility of vision, framed and ordered, as it pertains to perspective? Milledge’s paintings do not consciously engage with this history, but they do, through form and content, use the window as a metaphor, albeit negated. Milledge’s use of glass as a surface playfully denies its defining quality: transparency. This negation severs contact with the notion of the open window and seems to push us towards observing something liminal, half here and always elsewhere. We look through the glass but instead of seeing an ordered landscape or a mimetically accurate scene or even the museum wall, we see simplification, botanical abstraction, symbolic ambiguity and maybe our own reflection. These paintings do not strive to ‘make sense’; they are manifestations of an associative process that include poetry, painting, and myth. There is an echo in Milledge’s paintings of phosphenes (the experience of seeing light when your eyes are closed), or what is sometimes referred to as ‘prisoner’s cinema’ (images and hallucinations which arise as either torment or solace for those kept in isolation or darkness).
I experienced this when I visited Milledge’s studio and saw two unfinished works leaning against the wall in her studio. They show a series of intersecting circles with two smaller bright-white circles in the centre, almost glowing (the circles mimic the eyes of an animal caught in the passing flash of headlights, seized by danger but unable to move). At the bottom of both images a delicate gold leaf grows upwards towards the centre. I see a version of these images now as I shut my eyes tight and write. For what a life images lead with our eyes closed! It is often said that the eye, under the pressure of linear perspective, became disincarnated, unblinking and immobile, engendering the ‘rationalization of sight’. But what did Renaissance artists engaged in perspectival realism see when they closed their eyes at night? No doubt the images of the day returned to them, as they do for us, as a chaotic surge of details and unexamined fragments. When I close my eyes now I can conjure these two paintings again: they are floating in the dark, not quite still or whole, reminding me that sight has never been truly rational.
Surrealism showed us that Alberti’s window is an object to be played with, broken, and then put back together again in the conscious and unconscious interplay of the imagination. Milledge borrows from this history but arrives at her own symbolism that has no need to valorise destruction as a creative force (a tired and tiring model). No, these paintings do not try to shock us (as the Surrealists attempted), instead they seem to be more interested in a form of material and imaginative play. Milledge’s paintings plumb the weirdness of images and their afterlife, the blurry distinction (and tension) between their exterior and interior lives. She makes a method out of the gift and curse of sight. Circles (moons?), atoms and molecules, legs and arms, ziggurats and gothic towers, plant morphology, historiographies of taxidermy, sprouting noses and witches, masks, dildos, human-animal-flora-fauna creatures. Pick one of these reoccurring motifs and you could easily find yourself, as I have, following threads to antiquity, occult rituals, medieval bestiaries, illuminated manuscripts, owls, erotica, Tinder, Bataille, cartoons such as Adventure Time, cosmetics, the weather, advertising. It is correct to say these references are intentional, aligned with her academic and artistic interests, but it would be lazy theory to call it appropriation. There is something far more uncontrolled and irrational about her process. Each image gives the impression of having emerged from a fog, as if it had jumped its historical ship and made it to the shore that is her work. For what theory and criticism often fail to realise, and what Milledge’s paintings can promptly remind us of, is that images are usually more suggestive than argumentative: they arrive with a story that is half here and always elsewhere. In these works we see a window into an ecosystem, a view into the fragile aliveness and weirdness of the passing present.
Tom Melick is a writer, artist and anthropologist, and has been working with Clare Milledge on research around witchcraft and magic, in relation to her practice.
Georges Bataille, ‘The solar anus’ (1927), Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985, pp. 5.
Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’ (1942), Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, New York, 1968, pp. 255.