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'Handles', 1988, by Lisa Milroy (b 1959)


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About the artwork

'Handles' was the work that won Lisa Milroy the first prize in John Moores 16 in 1989. The work is from the period when Milroy engaged with repetitively painting the same object, whether a pair of shoes or a book in various angles and various arrangements on one canvas. Repetition is often the result of Milroy's love for painting and desire to understand and command form. The act of repetition also facilitates her thinking which is filtered through the act of making marks on a canvas. Milroy's work from that period has a striking resemblance with the taxonomic ordering of objects in traditional museums or the work of scientists in laboratories. However there are no labels or diagrams to direct our vision and our understanding of them. We are invited to observe each one of them but also to view them as a whole. The various shapes and patterns of 'Handles' evoke connotations of musical notes or signs in a coded message. Milroy commented that 'Handles' "can be seen as an abstract painting of lines, dots and circles, of moments of local detail and overall pattern, whose composition depends on notions of display, cataloguing and placing". So despite the fact that the handles are figurative objects, their arrangement and the way they are painted is abstract.

Lisa Milroy is an artist concerned more with form in her paintings than with content. She chooses to paint everyday objects but paints them isolated from their original context, unravelling new qualities and meanings and more importantly, a new way of looking at inanimate objects. Her work does not aim to imitate reality in a photographic way. This negation of photo-realism can be seen in the way that her objects may have bits missing or their outlines may look unfocused. Above all they demonstrate explicitly that they are painted rather than photographed. Milroy paints them from memory instead of from direct observation. This demonstrates how the process of painting is also a process of thinking and re-engaging with the objects' intrinsic qualities. Milroy's work challenges the primacy Western European thought has given to art as being the mere imitation of nature and reality. However the boldness of her task lies in that she chooses to do that by painting real objects, ones that we can immediately recognise and relate to.

One cannot avoid drawing another parallel between Milroy's work and our world of material culture. Objects and possessions have come to determine our identities and status, our desire to consume is constantly growing. In the light of this thought it is rather curious how Milroy's 'Handles' which are inanimate objects can suddenly be viewed as facial features, lips or noses. This poses an interesting and humorous question to anybody who might share this thought: have the objects of our desire become more human than ourselves?

Lisa Milroy was born in Vancouver. She initially studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then at St Martin's School of Art (1978-9) as well as Goldsmith's College (1979-82) in London. Milroy had her first one-woman show at Nicola Jacobs Gallery in 1984. She was included in the 'Young Blood' exhibition at Riverside Studios in London in 1983 and in 1984 in 'Problems of Picturing' at the Serpentine Gallery. Milroy won a prize for her work 'Four Books' in John Moores 14 (the oldest painting competition in Britain) in 1985. In 1989 she won the first prize in John Moores 16 with 'Handles'. Milroy has exhibited extensively in Europe and the United States. Her most recent exhibition was in Tate Liverpool in 2001.

In the early 1990s Lisa Milroy broke free from the category of 'object paintings' such as shoes, clothes and books, and expanded her range of subjects. This could be interpreted as the result of Milroy's travels in Japan, Italy, North America and Africa and often her work reflects the discoveries and wonders of her trips. These new paintings are of ancient Greek ceramics in Archaeological Museums, Japanese interiors and food, Japanese prints, and various landscape views.

A first response to viewing 'Handles' is perhaps a feeling of loss or void, re-enforced by the blankness of the white background and the purity of light. Milroy transforms these easily recognisable objects by depriving them of the furniture or doors they are attached to. This type of deconstruction or de-contextualisation reminds one of the syntax of language, and particularly the meaning and value of words, when in whole sentences or when isolated. Additionally, because the objects are handles of various shapes and patterns the viewer is asked to reconstruct the environment or the context to which they are attached, that is how they would be pulled or held. This imaginary reconstruction in the mind or imagination of the viewer introduces an element of movement in the work, which is perhaps unique, if one thinks that the paintings of objects can easily run the risk of being flat and static. In earlier paintings of books Milroy drew an even more powerful parallel between objects and painting. Books are material objects but their power lies in evoking a reality from the words on their pages rather than their materiality; thus it is suggested that images should have a similar role. Even if we are able to recognise them and identify them we should experience them for what they evoke, rather than their physical existence and their representative qualities.