Here at the Academy it has been a tenet of our programming to present art that encompasses craft, visual satisfaction and profound speculation. Nick Miller displays an admirable ambition on all of these fronts. His work never analyses simplistically into a dialectic but insists on an older non-secular philosopohical proposition of the synthesis of the body, mind and soul. With Western culture so cynical and perhaps afraid to return to such a triad of experience it is no surprise that the artist turns to Eastern paths to reconcile his practice.
The exhibition surveys ten year of work ranging across a number of series. However each is bound to the other in the artist's attempt to engage with the essence of his subject. Miller works beyond the molecular, trying to define the force that may even give those tiny particles their energy. He is not interested in what binds the matter of life together but what animates all matter.
We are grateful to Catherine Marshall for her personal and thoughtful essay on the work. And to the Irish Times for their association which will ensure a wide audience becomes familiar with the exhibition. Also, Josephine Kelliher and her staff at the Rubicon Gallery for their assistance.
Our gratitude to Nick Miller for bearing so well with the enforced patience of the organizational processes surrounding this project and for his work and intelligence, a great contribution to the practice of art.
Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin.
Nick Miller in conversation with Patrick T Murphy
Patrick T Murphy: One of the abiding qualities of your paintings or drawings is there performative aspect, they return one to the act of making, to what has happened between you, your subject and your materials.
Nick Miller: Painting like everything is perched between being and doing. For me, the most important quality is my ‘awakeness’ to the moment of painting. So a painting is something left over from that act. The sense of performance comes from working only while in the presence of what I’m painting; I need that physical charge. Its like the difference between sitting in the front row seeing the spit of an actor on a stage compared to his coloured shadow fixed on film.
So the painting is not made for viewing but is a record of time and action. I am thinking of Pollock. You look at Pollock and as you experience this retinal gymnastic of viewing you can’t but visualise his doing it. From Namuth’s film we know that the canvas was on the floor, he walked around it, dribbling, smudging, creating a full, enlivened, dense surface. Qualities we can find in your work.
There are parallels; trying not to think about the surface or composition, to just be in the act of painting. The difference is the link to a physical subject while working, trying to keep that connection live. Previously you have made an elegant distinction between eye, mind and gesture. And in a way there is precedent for this. To return to mid-fifties American with the Abstract Expressionists they intended to make raw paintings, to short circuit the critical and intellectual, and to have nothing between them and the material. Like Burroughs, a lot of alcohol or chemicals were used to gain this rawness. So your use of T’ai Chi to obtain a more open perception is not eccentric within the history of art.
No. It is nothing new. Art is not just a technical exercise to render a subject - it connects experience, on all levels. T’ai Chi has become one way for me to study energy and practice opening my perceptions. Getting loaded, loosens inhibitions too - releases energy, but can dull you in the long run. In one of the first Closer drawings (Eoin I, 1996 [see p20]) you can still see the stains of a wine glass - dutch courage for when I began that intimate way of making drawings. What I want is to be at an apex where you are extremely aware of seeing, and at the same time you are not constricted by too much thinking. At the moment of applying paint you are receiving into your synapses through your eyes, and expressing that through your body onto the canvas. I have to be completely in that moment to make paintings, I know when they have that clarity and when I am kidding myself. Buddhists talk about being present in every moment, through awareness of breath; painting for me is a messy, flawed version of that. I recall some critical debate in the eighties about De Kooning’s late paintings, asking whether they really should be considered as he had Alzheimer’s when he made them. Having seen them I find them completely convincing as paintings and I can’t understand how the loss of short-term memory would affect skill developed over decades.
They work for me too, Alzheimer’s is awful because there is no choice, but I find thinking of the past or the future often just gets in the way of painting, so I have an empathy with their validity. To go back to your beginnings, you didn’t train as a painter, What lead you to paint?
I have always painted. I was lucky to have grown up with some awareness of art. My father paints, we took it up at the same time. But I never considered art college until I was finishing university and I realised that this is what I had to do. Then I came to Ireland and did it.
But that was quite a critical moment. You read Developmental Studies – economics, politics, etc. and then you decided to be painter. There must have been much doubt and conflict within you at that moment. Were there any historical figures that lead you to this way of living ? It was a traumatic time. I think I was saved just before I left for Ireland in 1984 by a show of late Giacometti at The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at UEA where I studied ... and by life drawing classes at The Norwich School of Art. What makes a painter paint? It’s usually some dysfunction or dissatisfaction with our connection to the world. From very young I found that painting offered me a way to feel more complete. I always spent time in museums, even before I committed to the life. I was attracted to the silence - to being with paintings, when I travelled, it was mostly to see collections in Europe.
Do you have two ways of looking at painting? Is there a technical eye, the how of the painting and an aesthetic/emotional eye, the affect of the painting.
Not really, if I find a painting that speaks to me I can spend a long time looking, drawing and absorbing it tangentially. I cannot analytically deconstruct how it has been achieved. For paint to be alive across decades or centuries, the artist has achieved some sort of alchemy to hold and charge it with energy. That is what interests me - a sort of secret history of energy in painting. Academically it is meaningless, but experientially it is true and not as mystical as one might think.
Being a Londoner, how aware were you of the School of London when you were growing up, I mean someone like Freud is such a great observer, searing in his depiction whether his subject is a person or a rooftop. It is work of acute reportage, I find the work a-emotional. I would prefer the flesh of Spencer to Freud? Certainly from my early-teens I was aware of Bacon Auerbach, Kosoff and Freud. I have gained a great deal of sustenance from looking at their work, from a distance..from Ireland. I am not interested in arguments about Freud’s status or his subjects, that is his affair, but I am impressed by his ability to still grow as a painter, at eighty. I admire both the innocence and relentless seeking of the work. It is open, you can see everything in the paint, good and bad, nothing is concealed and I think that goes for the others too in different ways. I think however, I was lucky to avoid painting in London under the weight of that world, or the later waves of British art.
But another, earlier great English tradition is landscape painting, did you escape that as well?
I didn’t think much about it until I got the mobile studio in 1997, giving me the opportunity to work with landscape as I had with the figure, up close. I never want to escape good painting, someone like Constable is wonderful. He achieved the alchemy I was talking about, resolving the density and energy of nature in paint.
You have been living in the countryside now for ten years, what, difference does that make to your art?
I needed the difficulty of Ireland and Dublin in the eighties to allow me to grow as a painter and the distance of a rural life for the last ten years to test my need to continue. Everything became clearer to me since I moved to the country. You can grow vegetables and live without trace, and that is a fine choice too. It has helped to define and gestate what really interests me, what we spoke about earlier- the alchemy of energy as subject. That could only have distilled in me in this type of quiet, with less distraction. I find that I paint less hours but my concentration is vastly more intense than it was in the city.
Is it like an athlete, do you need to work your way into a zone before you enter the arena of the studio?
One of the reasons I responded well to T’ai Chi was the understanding it brings to the nature of change in oneself and the universe. I found the moving to and from family to studio, difficult. The practice helped me to move from one to the other with less loss of attention and energy, also with less wasteful angst. My relationship between the new landscapes and training in T’ai Chi did become very intense and athletic in nature, particularly during 2000-2001 in relation to the large canvases in which need a lot of energy to bring off.
But T’ai Chi also offers a philosophical system, a cosmology.
I am slowly absorbing that, but essentially I am a practical person; ideas don’t make paintings or life. The fact that I get up in the morning, meditate and go through my T’ai Chi routine and then go to the studio and it works for me is what is pertinent, not sitting down and analysing the philosophical tenets behind it. I am not being anti-intellectual but for me one of the central problems in western thinking is the separation of the intellect from the body. If we compartmentalise our constituent parts it creates dissolution not totality…I suppose this is something I am learning from Taoism and from life. I am interested in eastern thought because I need it to attain whatever balance I can get - to survive and live. The same with painting landscape, I do it to be awake to Nature, to overcome my sense of separation. The effort to put art into life seems to be a re-occurring struggle within art. The Constructivists citing geometry as the great Esperanto of the visual - an art for the people. Eighty years later it looks hermetic and exclusive. In the sixties, Fluxus, attempting to break down the barriers between art and life through performance, material from the everyday, again now looks as a failure in its ability to connect.
I think that the problem with those two examples is that few ideas are truly sustainable in reality. That is why I like painting because it is material, very humbling because it is the muck that always puts ideas in perspective. For me T’ai Chi is more the kind of activity that can really put art into life. In terms of painting, my interest is to put life into art.
When I look at one of the new landscape works I am retinally excited. The surface that you have created I can only describe as dances with my eye.
When I first got the mobile studio, I struggled to develop a language to deal with landscape. I said to myself, like a mantra, that a tree has to be as real to me as having a naked person standing one foot away. That may sound weird, but I need to tap into that visceral energy to make paintings. I remember the first time in early 2000, I got a tree to do that for me, the Whitethorn in my neighbour’s field [see p28 & p35]. Only then could I begin to find a way to work the paint to a level of intensity to see landscape as a subject. Catherine Marshall mentions in her excellent essay that when you go to make an alternation in a painting you rework the whole surface again.
Once I found a way to begin to see landscape, I had to re-work paintings from 1997 onwards. Returning to paintings - whether it is a day, a week, annually or years later, means I have to reconsider the totality in order to a change a part, because I am re-entering the experience from all perspectives. But I do leave things alone if I can. I try not to be doctrinaire about my own approach, but without that fresh engagement with the actual subject, it is meaningless activity to me. I can’t change a painting away from its subject.
Here you are living in these wonderful vistas of the Sligo countryside and you seemed to have successfully avoided the picturesque, do you sense Nature as malevolent?
No, I see Nature as disinterested in human matters. It is a relentless continuum of energy that I am only beginning to appreciate. When you have lived in this landscape for sometime, you see a beauty that is not picturesque. In part because of the social reality, you are aware why people have left. It’s a challenging, tough but beautiful landscape that is cultivated now even less than it was in the past. You are aware of the weeds and rain all the time, but they are not malevolent. In the paintings, there is little eye rest. Even the sky can be obsessionally busy- it scares me sometimes because you do like to have a rest in a painting as in life. I am slowly working out this relationship between my nature and Nature. Is it an ambition for your work to wake people up to this relationship?
Well it is first an intention to wake me up to it! After that it is out of my hands.
Well it certainly doesn’t allow the viewer to get off the hook. Thank you. Thank you.