Painting, a fascinating word. Both a noun and a verb, it describes the physical work we see on the wall and also the act of applying the paint that created it. And it is not restricted literally to paint.
We talk of painting with light, and of mixed media paintings that include paper, sand, bits of string and almost anything else you can think of.
In the case of one current exhibition, we are offered paintings made to interact with their viewers, that include cloth, rope and steel, as well as canvas and paint.
These are the innovative works of Lisa Milroy, whose many concerns include how to capture time in a work of art, over and above David Hockney’s dictum that the time taken to produce a painting remains layered within its surface.
For the past nine years Milroy has been head of graduate painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, in central London; one of the most prestigious — and responsible — hands-on jobs in the whole of art because it puts her in a position to influence generations of artists.
A lady worth listening to then, and one whose own artistic practice inevitably offers clues to the future direction of painting.
Milroy, who has received more honours and awards than I have space to describe, (to give you a quick sample, she is a council member of the Royal Academy of Arts, liaises with the UK National Gallery on behalf of the Tate, and is guest adviser at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam) is captivated by the paintings of the 17th century Spanish master Diego Velasquez, among them his Old Woman Cooking Eggs, a tavern scene made when the artist was aged around 18, now in the National Gallery of Scotland.
In it you can see the eggs changing from gelatinous to opaque white… and by extension the passing of time.
Unlike the primarily figurative art of Velazquez, Milroy is essentially a painter of still life and remains fascinated by the struggle to realise the materiality of an object.
One of the first paintings to greet us at her exhibition Handmade at the newly extended Stables Annex of the One-Off Gallery at Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi — on until April 29 — is a still life of four glass kettles. The hobs glow, water bubbles, steam rises; time is passing before us.
Nearby in Letter/Writing 2003, 27 small monochrome images of a woman writing a letter (a brief essay into figurative painting) are arranged in three decks, like strips of photo negatives, while above them are painted her address book, stamps, envelope, pen and the letter itself. The strips therefore are time-elapsed images of the process of writing; again the passage of time caught on canvas.
Viewers become actively involved in two imaginative works. In the first, Espadrilles 2027, we are invited to rearrange two pairs of shoes on coloured squares of canvas laid on the floor.
Thus the installation — or painting, as Milroy defines it — is altered by the audience and, as each viewer follows suit, they inherit a shadow of how the previous person saw it.
In the other, Off the Rails (Nairobi) 2017-2018, we are asked to choose one of 25 dresses arranged on a rail and hang it on a panel of brightly coloured cloths. The rail is the palette, the dresses are the paints. Each viewer chooses in turn, influenced by what went before — another metaphor for the alterations that produce the continuum of art history.
There is much to enjoy in this exhibition, and one other example of its excellence (taken almost at random from the 18 provocative pieces on view) is a group of three paintings of Japanese tea bowls. Apart from their trompe l’oeil accuracy, two of the bowls are surrounded by cut-lines and scissors; the sort of things you see around newspaper coupons.
They are telling us what we are seeing is not real but a painted artifice, an illusion — a clever quotation from Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, also known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe.)
Milroy consistently produces museum quality exhibitions, and the One-Off has given us an opportunity to see a much lauded and highly influential artist at the top of her game.
The concept of these interactive pieces is particularly exciting because it feeds upon the viewers’ own responses and becomes a metaphor for the subtlety of the small but endless influences we have upon each other and thus for the evolution of art … a refined riff on the creed that good artists indicate, usually through immaculate and finished works, where we are heading in the battle of life.
By involving the viewer on a physical rather than solely intellectual level, the artist is widening the argument and offering us the opportunity to mediate the act of creation and posit a projection of our destinies more forcefully; during, rather than after, the discourse.
What Milroy is telling us is that we too are players in the game.
This is one of those rare exhibitions that expand our understanding of contemporary painting and of our own relationship to art. It is accompanied by an excellent colour catalogue that contains a perceptive introduction to Milroy’s oeuvre by the artist and blogger Thom Ogonga.
You can take this show home.