Discover / Meet the Artist
Interview with Alice Miller
"Painting accomplishes something photography never can — duration."
Today, we'd like to introduce you to
Alice Miller @aemiller
Your work involves directly translating photographs into paint.
Why do you work so closely with photographs and how does this affect the way your work is read?
I’ve always taken a lot of photographs. When I was really young, I had a Polaroid iZone camera where each photograph was about an inch wide, and came out of the camera on a foil strip. I don’t know if it even got that much use, but have such a vivid tactile memory of the tiny photographs and the coloured foil. Most of my reference photos for my paintings are taken on my phone, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost that association with the photograph as an object, and the camera with the ability to freeze time.
Although I hardly ever think of photos as references when they’re taken, they become really interesting retrospectively. I look back through my own photos a lot, and initially translating them to paintings was quite naïve, coming from a need to preserve moments of my life with more gravity.
As my work developed, I started to become more conscious of which images make successful paintings. Photographs of social scenes have so much suspended energy from different figures’ gestures, expressions and interactions — you can analyse all the subtleties in body language. Hands are also equally important as faces in a reference, for me. They add a ‘charge’ to an image as they are expressive, but also introduce the sense of touch.
Translated into paint, these types of photos make the viewer conscious of their own looking. Photos know that they are only snapshots, but paintings pretend to be more complete scenes. They have duration, grandeur, and demand respect and attention. Yet, when you look at my paintings, you’re very conscious you’re looking at something photographic. You can analyse every interaction and devise your own narrative, but because of their photographic origin, you’re aware that the scene isn’t totally real - it will only ever be a camera’s view. You can only see as much as the original photo allowed you to see, and that will never be more than a snapshot.
Tell us about a real-life situation that inspired you.
There have been so many! I’ve been fascinated with nightclubs for a while now — how they change people’s behaviour and seem to have a completely different set of social rules. Watching people dance in nightclubs is always inspiring because of the awkwardness and slight sense of voyeurism, almost like you’re watching something you shouldn’t be.
I tend to take more of a passive role at any social event — I don’t really talk a lot, so I’m usually more of an observer. If I see something that inspires me, or that I want to remember, I’ll usually take a photo. My reference photos have always been inconspicuous, and having the camera’s detached viewpoint is a really helpful way of zooming out. It almost lets you see the scene as a whole, or a kind of tableau, which I find really interesting. Scenes tend to arrange themselves — I haven’t posed anyone for a reference so far.
I think the first time I was consciously looking for references was for Nighttime Conversation, when I knew I had to develop a body of work for the end of my degree. I was on holiday with a uni society, and there were about 20 of us sat out on a balcony playing a game. Only about half the people were really interested, and there were so many separate conversations going on at once. A couple of weeks later, I looked at the photos I’d taken that night, and saw these three figures in completely separate worlds, with expressions that were so contrasting it was quite funny. The painting is a tiny fragment of what was happening when I took the photo, yet when people look at the work, they’re able to read a clear narrative.
In Ascension/Trying To Sneeze, the reference was one of those moments where everything just arranges right in front of you and you just have to get your phone out quickly. The only photo I took became the painting.
What do you love and hate about your work?
I love that it takes so long. Because I paint photos that I love, or have interesting narratives, I love spending time with the image and knowing it like the back of my hand. As I’m painting, I start to see more and more elements that I didn’t notice at first glance, and I hope the same thing happens to a viewer when they look at my work. Time is quite an important element of my work and reinforces why I paint photos. Painting accomplishes something photography never can — duration. In an everything-here-now culture, I think painting plays an indispensable role in facilitating slow looking. Small sized work is really important for this too — it encourages in-depth looking, and possesses a kind of intimacy which makes people want to spend time with the painting.
At school I was always told to paint bigger, and I’m really glad that was a piece of advice I chose to ignore. For his show Flames at Semiose Galerie, Paris, Anthony Cudahy’s paintings were described as ‘glowing coals’. I think that’s the perfect phrase for small work. Glowing but not burning, a quiet but strong presence.
I’m not sure I hate anything about my work, but I sometimes regret the fact that I lose the sentimentality of the photo. Once I’ve painted a photo, I can no longer see it as that object, with a memory — it just becomes pure image. For that reason, I have to be fairly sure something will make a good painting before I start, and I think I probably have quite a high completion rate or low abandonment rate of paintings. It also means I find it hard to experiment or make sketches of paintings, and I sometimes feel that invalidates me a little as an artist, or means I’m less creative.
Who are your biggest influences?
Was there a particular artist or work of art that struck you in a way that contributed to what you do today?
Jenna Gribbon made me want to paint and remains my all time favourite painter. At school, my focus was on photography, and I regarded painting as a means to an end. I came to university wanting to try ceramics, and pursue analog photography in more depth, but fell back into painting as I knew it was something I was good at.
I remember being in the studio working on a painting, and my friend came over. As he watched me work he said, ‘you’re a painter, aren’t you’. He was definitely right, and I’m comfortable with that term now, but I think at the time I was a little fed up as I felt my passion laid in other disciplines.
Looking back, I hadn’t really seen any paintings in real life that I loved. Jenna’s work for me has a quality I’ve never seen anywhere else. A lot of her paintings are also small, and depict friends, family and lovers in domestic scenes. In real life, her work actually sparkles, and you can feel her hand in every tactile brush stroke — she makes painting look effortless. Emphasis in her work is on looking itself — you almost feel like you’re touching the painting with your eyes.
In terms of a single work of art, James Turrell’s Roden Crater is hugely inspiring in terms of concept and theory. I was obsessed with it and kept revisiting it throughout my time at university, partly because it’s so infuriatingly sparsely documented, but mostly because it’s possibly the culmination of art and experience, and allows you to observe light, space and time from inside a volcano in the Arizona desert.
The concept of religious experience without religion, and the use of light itself as a medium to achieve this, really captivated me and was one of the first things in art that I fully understood, without academia. For me, it’s a sort of distillation of what happens in nightclubs — this is the main reason I find these environments interesting, and love paintings that play with light and dark.
How do you see your art developing in the coming years?
I think photographs will always be at the root of my work somehow, because I feel I was a photographer before I was a painter. In the hopefully not-too-distant future I’d love to do more nightclub paintings, and work around night social scenes, as that’s what I would have continued to do under normal circumstances. There are still so many interesting themes to explore in that area; I don’t think it’s nearly finished yet.
Light/dark influence is something I’d like to continue too, but more exaggerated; more Caravaggio-esque.
Additionally, over the past year or so, I’ve felt conscious that the way I gather references at the moment probably isn’t the most sustainable, as it leans heavily on chance. Although it makes me really uncomfortable, I think it would be interesting to see how a more posed reference affects a painting.
I also have a lot of considerable gaps in technical knowledge. This has come to my attention particularly during the pandemic, as I’ve had time to fully concentrate on painting itself rather than the concept behind a work, or when I have to have it finished. I’ve learnt a lot in the past six months about colour, pigment and surface, and I think it shows in my work, but I’ve still got a lot to learn.
Artistically, my goal is to essentially distill my work. Get it down to its most pure and concise form, both technically with colour/pigment, and in expression and concept. I think that’s a good thing to strive for in any creative pursuit.
Ultimately though, I want to see my work’s impact in real life. It’s definitely been challenging during the pandemic as I had to finish my degree and start a truly independent practice in an environment where suddenly feedback wasn’t immediately available, and there wasn’t any way of knowing how my paintings were being received. Now, I’m looking forward to having opportunities to attend and take part in physical shows again. Thinking about how I idealise my favourite artists, I would love it if someone felt that way about my work.