The well field | Catherine Marshall 2002
The Well Field, from the mobile studio. Kilmactranny Co Sligo. 2001
Years ago in rural Ireland I played in a field called the‘Well Field’. A decade later I heard the Clancy Brothers talking of growing up in Carrick on Suir in the 40s and 50s. They, too, played in a well field. I had underrated the value of that experience until I saw Nick Miller’s landscape paintings. Suddenly the closeness of his observation propels me right back into my Well Field, I can feel the ire on my legs where the top of my Wellington boots chafe against my damp legs. There is no need to go on. What we are talking about here is a confrontation with the real thing - paintings that tunnel into the plane of vision so much that they become sculpture, where the childhood wonder at the detail blocks out the over view of the landscape. I would be hard put to it to draw a map of my well field but I could describe the well and the stream, the rushes, the sting of the grass, the sceac hedgerows and hear the squelch as we, children, raced over the marshy ground as well as if I were there now. I never saw the whole field because I was lost in the excitement of its component parts.
That primal excitement returns in front of the landscape paintings of Nick Miller. The term landscape was invented by the Early Netherlandish painters during the Renaissance to suggest a view of the world, usually enclosed in a frame and separated by it from our ordinary world. Miller’s landscapes are not separated from the world beyond by any such conventional barriers. We see them as the artist did through the open doors of the converted truck, which is his outdoor mobile studio. The truck is in the landscape, sometimes so close to the subject of the paintings that branches, leaves and the life they support push their way into the studio itself. Artist and subject are so close they become inseparable.
Miller’s practice has been moving in this direction for some time. In his earlier South African Works he distinguished between the thing seen and the experience remembered.1 Memory itself is the subject. Even then Miller knew that seeing implies separation from the subject but remembered imagery comes from a fusion of the perceiver and the thing perceived. Miller abandoned that particular mode of exploration when he realised that he was ‘inventing’ memories’. The challenge was to retain his desired closeness to the subject, without allowing his critical mind to edit it. One successful means of achieving the degree of intimacy he wanted can be seen in the “Closer” Drawings, 1993-1999 [p16-21] in such works as his portrait drawing Corban.2 This and other portrait drawings of the same period derive extraordinary presence from Miller's practice of kneeling astride the body of the sitter, their faces inches apart, as he draws. The end product is awkward but entirely convincing. It marked a breakthrough in the representation of the body and it energised Miller to try further experiments.
A long-term interest in Chinese thought; particularly in Taoism, calligraphy and the art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan has an acknowledged influence on his painting practice. The understanding of energy cultivation and use that is embodied in these thought systems has become a parallel study alongside painting. While his work is firmly rooted in Western figurative painting, the subject that really absorbs him, be it the figure, still life or landscape is, energy or manifest “vitality”- the “Chi”, that is in Eastern thinking a central subject, and not in the least exotic. The disciplines of T’ai Chi enable him to achieve things in painting that he had not believed possible, a fortuitous by-product of the activity. Working with the Chinese artist Chen Zhongsen proved to Miller that the impossible is a state of mind.3 Chen’s ability to carve a complete poem on a single strand of his wife’s hair while working with his eyes closed and in a meditative state convinced Miller of the practical application of the disciplines he had been exploring. An experimental offshoot of this study is the large-scale watercolour drawings, The Innocence Series [p22-27]- executed directly after T’ai Chi sessions when the artist feels a heightened sense of concentration, responding to energies within himself and the sitter and when he feels liberated from his normal critical state.
The current series of landscape paintings emerge from this new awareness. Miller has intermittently painted but rarely shown landscapes and this is the first time he has exhibited more than one or two. His creative rhythm oscillates between periods spent working on the body and others when he looks to nature and the landscape. One genre informs the other, they are not separate activities. The landscapes in this exhibition, however, differ from their predecessors and from most other landscape paintings, in the extraordinary degree of closeness they embody between viewer and subject. The practice of T’ai Chi “helped build physical and mental stamina… and the necessary concentration to face the impossibly intense detail of the visible natural world as I find it outside the truck, without simplifying or consciously abstracting in the face of the nature. More than with the figure work, the phenomenal intensity of Chen’s micro-carvings and my relationship to that inherent knowledge, supported my attempts to enter the completeness of nature.4
Painted in and around Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim, in all weathers, from the back of a truck/studio these landscapes eschew romantic notions of the West of Ireland, focusing instead on what is ordinary and uneventful. Miller's close scrutiny of the banal turns it into its apotheosis, a Grimm’s fairyland of dense and unfathomable energy, sometimes beautiful, sometimes threatening, always mesmerisingly powerful. In a recent lecture about photography at the Irish Museum of Modern Art Ian Jeffrey drew attention to the opposing meanings of the word spell, on the one hand the imperative of the verb to spell and on the other a noun denoting a magical charm. Jeffrey might have been talking about the two different but interlocking facets of Nick Miller’s landscapes. We are brought up close to the minutiae of growing things so that we can almost spell out the details, count the building blocks, yet at the same time forced to acknowledge the mindbending magic of it all. Nature holds itself aloof from a child's toys in Snow, Slide 2001 [p55] refusing to merge with them, forcing a realisation of their foreignness. At other times (Autumn Rain [p67], Blackthorn Blossom [p47], Bluebells, Beechwood [p58] and Winter, Lane[p49] all from 2001), it pushes its way into the truck/studio, ignoring spurious distinctions between nature and culture.
The presence of the subject is everything. Whether working with animals as he did during a residency in Dublin Zoo in 1988-89, or drawing cadavers and body parts as he did, in Dublin’s College of Surgeon’s Miller gets adrenaline flows in direct proportion to his proximity to the object of his gaze. Working with caged animals or conversely with dead humans in these residencies heightened his consciousness of vitality as a subject.“If you only work when the subject is in front of you, you need to develop a physical stamina and speed of working, particularly in the context of big landscape canvases… that is not rushed…it is working fast to slow time down or trying to paint with a slow concentration while actually working at quite a speed. These, incidentally, are some principles of T’ai Chi Ch’uan which you cultivate when doing the strong (internal) within the Soft (external) form and the fast within the slow …I hope the paintings look as if you can’t tell how long they took…some are completed with in a day and some over three or four years(returning each year at the same time), there is no definitive system, but the truck allowed me to keep returning to the same site with practical ease”.5
But there is another dimension to this endeavour. Miller’s successful efforts to eliminate critical distance also eliminate any sense of hierarchy between artist and subject. In this he puts himself firmly within the Northern European, Nominalist tradition. While the Italian Renaissance opted for an idealised, cerebral world where man was firmly in control, Flemish painters like Pieter Brueghel continued to assert the equality of all natural phenomena. Thus Breughel’s Icarus plunges to his death while a Flemish farmer continues to plough his field and doesn’t even notice that history (of a kind) is being made at the other side of the fence. In another Brueghel landscape a group of soldiers arrive at a distant snowed up village but their human presence is subtly diminished by the greater presence of a black crow perched on the bare branch of a tree in the foreground. As in Taoist thought whatever the human drama Nature will not be ignored. Humanist rhetoric gives way to the Nominalist belief that God is to be found in equal measure in all aspects of his creation. This is most clearly spelled out in Miller’s landscapes in such paintings as Carran Hill to Sligo, 2001-2 [p41], where the bent figure of a man cutting turf is barely distinguishable from the overgrowth around him. In Highwood to Home 1999-2002 [p33], the small, white figure, of a farmer surveying the fields in the middle left ground, was actually the first mark on the canvas, the first thing seen, even though tiny and almost invisible now. Miller’s insistence on covering the whole canvas with a new layer of paint each time he wants to make an adjustment to one area is a practical embodiment of this egalitarian approach to his subject matter as much as it is a gesture towards aesthetic unity.
Brueghel is not the only Flemish painter evoked by Nick Miller. Quite unconsciously his method of painting through the restricted doorway of his mobile studio led him to adopt another Flemish idea. The curtailed space in the van means that it is never possible to stand back and look from the easel to the subject and back, nor is it possible to see what is going on in the corners. In art as in life we have to take some things on credit, surrender control. To minimise this Miller uses a small, round convex mirror to help him to extend his peripheral vision and to enable him to see the whole canvas while he works. Typically, then, the mirror is made visible in such paintings as Rockview to Home, 2001 [p15]and Swing, Truck view, 2002 [p39]. The artist reflected in the mirror is incorporated into the painting just as he was in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding portrait and the fusion of artist and subject is complete.
Where does Miller fit in? Where should he be positioned in the greater scheme of things artistic? There is no doubt whatsoever about his northern European sensibility but this by no means suggests that he is imbued with an Irish one. There isn’t a Sile na Gig nor a thatched cottage to be seen. Wire fences occur not as signifiers of territory but because they belong there. Miller’s refusal to edit out what lies in front of him means they are allowed to remain in the pictures. But these are not scientific landscapes either. Despite very superficial similarities to the Impressionists, in the landscapes with rain falling, (Kilronan View, Raining [p62], and Autumn Rain [p66] from 2001) or the snow paintings, Miller is not motivated, as the Impressionists were, to understand and document the effects of changing light on colour. While they were more interested in the working of the human eye than in nature Miller is fired up with a deep respect for the intangible energy of growing things. Miller will not be the Cézanne of the North West either. Cézanne could only paint Mont Saint Victoire as he did because he could detach himself from it. Detach… observe …and analyse. Nick Miller is driven by a different goal. In his landscapes texture, the tangible physicality that drives the paint in an attempt to make reality, is more important than light and the sensuous thrill that accompanies the tactility of his trees and bogland is precisely what eliminates separateness. Vision implies distance, touch overcomes it. In the final analysis Miller comes closest to the visionary landscapes of his compatriots, the great English landscapists Constable and Samuel Palmer and to the volcanic presence of Vincent Van Gogh whose influence on his early development Miller readily acknowledges. It was seeing Van Gogh’s “Fields in the Rain” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art that led him to understand the value of what he was learning from the East and to see that the physical, mental and spiritual apprehension of a subject can be fully embodied in paint. Miller may not share the religious beliefs that supported the earlier artists but he completely endorses their awe at the complexity, variety and fecundity of the natural world.
Fitting Miller into a contemporary context is not easy. He readily points to Giacometti and his discipline of looking/exploring – seeing - as a major influence on his own way of seeing and it is relevant, too, to draw parallels with others such as performance artist Marina Abramovic who also looked to the East and to Zen Buddhism to release internal strengths that she could not otherwise access it is hard to find painters who work in a similar fashion. That may well be because Miller, like his older compatriots, the painters Barrie Cooke and Camille Souter is self-taught as an artist, and like them, impervious to current trends in art theory. Not having to unlearn the lessons of art school they were free to develop their own independent practices. Their prior experiences in socially committed disciplines – Souter trained as a nurse in World War II London while Miller graduated with a degree in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia in 1984 - may have contributed to their commitment to subject in place of the artworld’s insistence on abstraction or the more theoretical positions of post-modernism. Greenbergian Formalism has never had a place in Miller’s practice. That aesthetic requires us to appreciate art in terms of the materials and processes of art itself – colour, line, ground and gesture, Miller’s artistic mission is quite different. As he put it in 1999 when discussing the CLOSER drawings “I want to shift the balance from art into Life” 6 Abstraction “side steps the ordinary”, according to Miller’s friend and neighbour, the painter Patrick Hall. 7 The ordinary in all its overlooked vitality, its messiness, its earthiness is what we get in Nick Miller’s paintings and drawings.
Ultimately this body of landscapes finds its closest parallel in Ireland, not in visual art but in literature. John McGahern’s novel That They May Face the Rising Sun is less a novel in the traditional sense than a new kind of pastoral, one in which the writer’s love of rural life is not blinded by any romantic idealisation of it. McGahern focuses on a small lakeside farming community, etching a series of human stories into the soil of County Leitrim. Ultimately the most important character in the novel is the place itself and the positive and negative effects it has on the people who struggle to exist within it. “The rain comes down. Grass grows. Children get old.” The Shah said suddenly. “That’s it. We all know. We know full well and can’t even whisper it out loud. We know in spite of them”.8 The novel has the same close perspective that Miller’s landscapes have, the same dense, prickly rawness. It is no surprise to learn that when Miller painted McGahern’s portrait in 1998 he produced the most challenging and finest of Irish literary portraits.
There is much discussion nowadays about the relationship between figure and ground in painting. The discussion is, of course, a post-modern one. Greenberg and his generation were so opposed to the very existence of the figure that it was not likely to stimulate their bons mots. More recently, with a return to figuration in much contemporary art a great deal hinges on the artist’s ability to position the figure on the canvas ground and to either detach or integrate them as the concept requires. Leon Golub scrapes the paint away from the surface of his pictures forcing the residue down into the canvas, ruthlessly dissolving the two into one, eliminating any vestigal space between them. Nick Miller is not concept led. It has been said that he has never been comfortable with post-modernism yet the integration of figure and ground in his recent portraits and landscapes is absolutely compelling.9 The physical proximity between him and his subject is so honestly, even messily presented that the subject itself becomes the ground. Horizons are cut off, projecting the landscape into the face of the viewer, blocking a clear view of the objects in our peripheral vision so that the viewer, him/herself becomes the figure in the ground of the painting. The familiar ‘picturesque’ landscape does not feature in this body of work. Instead the door is opened and the frame of the truck opening defines and frames the subject, reminding us that these are ‘studio’ paintings rather than traditionally composed ‘plein air’ pictures in which the horizons are limited by nature and position rather than the physical limitation of the studio from which they are painted
Miller has given himself one of the most difficult of all challenges. He continues to paint (despite claiming that he is “more of a drawer than a painter”) in a world where painting is often dismissed as uncool and retardaire, where critical attention is drawn instead to new media, installation and performance. Miller, with typical independence sees this marginalisation as a real source of strength. When you are on the edge you can see what is going on in the centre while those who are immersed in it often cannot. New technology, from this vantage point, does not offer the same opportunities for integration with the subject as painting does and so does not attract him. Patrick Hall, one of the most spiritual of Irish painters, also remarked that the process of “painting saved me from the abstract, from the unworldly.”10 It certainly seems to work in a similar fashion for Miller. Painting may not offer the same potential for mass communication as the computer but Miller feels strongly that it forges deeper connections between subject and artist, artist and viewer.
As if adherence to an old fashioned medium were not enough, he doggedly continues to work with the old conventional genres of portraiture, the nude, the still life and the landscape. Writing about the nude for his exhibition The Naked Formed in 1993 Miller argued that, “the body has been used to the point of exhaustion.”11 In 2000, he found a way to inject new vitality into the portrait which he shared with the rest of us in the exhibition Closer. With this body of work he does the same for landscape. Talking about that approach to working Miller said poetically, “The freedom to look is the gift of intimacy”. These landscape paintings from the back of the truck give us all a share of that gift. If, as Paul Klee famously stated “Art does not imitate the visible, it makes visible” then Nick Miller’s paintings provide us with an opportunity to look and see such as we have not had before.
Irish Museum of Modern Art.
1) South African Works 1991-92, exhibited Irish Museum of Modern Art, 1994
2) “Closer” Drawings Before the End, 1993-1999 Rubicon Press Ltd, ISBN 095327044 7 4, Exhibited 2000-01 Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Art Space Gallery, London & Kilkenny Arts Festival. ‘Corban’ is now in the IMMA Collection, donated by Maire and Maurice Foley.
3) Chen +Miller: East – West, Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo, 2002, ISBN 0 9540352 2 4
4) The artist in a note to the author, July 2002
6) Closer: Drawings Before The End, 1993-1999,Op cit
7) Patrick Hall, Gandon Works 12, Gandon Editions 1993, Ed; John O’Regan. ISBN 0946641 331
8) John McGahern, That They May Face the Rising Sun, Faber and Faber, 2002. P150
9) Aidan Dunne, “Portraits Worth Lying For”, Irish Times, 26/01/00
10) Gandon Works series – Patrick Hall, Op cit