Milly James I Recent Paintings: Salon

3 February - 11 March 2023

Milly James's exhibition debuts her ongoing investigation into the possibilities of painterly abstraction and its peculiar temporalities.


James graduated from RMIT University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Fine Art, and completed Honours at Monash University in 2022. Her practice has developed out of time spent in her studio contemplating the schism between the production of a work and its presentation as a painting; the works presented here pry open this gap, and unfurl the ambiguities of abstraction. James’s practice involves layering numerous coats of paint onto the canvas, in an attempt to render visible the point where form becomes image, and abstraction finally coheres with itself to become a finished work of art.


Painting is therefore self-referential for James. And in this sense, she paints pictures where abstraction seems to forever be doing abstraction. That is, her work continuously dilates and contracts in on itself – it whirs between expression and representation. James makes visible the afterlives of the artist’s hand, and so her paintings move between worlds. 


In Dream Furnace, a Rothko-esque stacked rectangular composition is hollowed out and scaffolds the painting’s surface in muted crimson strokes. This structure is toppled over by blue, red and yellow swaths of colour, which, becoming the subject of the image, begin to compete for the viewer’s attention. Meanwhile, greys and purples happily assume the role of background. The coiling fluorescent green which radiates from Lump Sum skirts along the edges of the picture plane, its span of colour teetering on the line between figure and distortion.


Each layer of paint added to James’s canvas keeps time. They answer to the previous flush of colour, a process through which the painterly surface begins to make sense of itself. The painter’s hand on the brush propels the image forward; it acts like the hand of a clock patiently ticking around the hour before reaching twelve again. Her brush moves across the wet paint, the hand ticks along, and the painting’s surface moves into focus. Moving counterclockwise now, the artist paints in reverse. She inverts positive and negative space, pulling muted tones out of the gleaming smears of colour. The drying paint hardens the brush bristles, scratching the canvas just as new forms begin to emerge. The layers start to absorb into each other. It becomes increasingly difficult to know when was then and what is now. The present is cleaved open, and a whole image finally becomes clear.


Text by Camille Orel.

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