"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."
"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."