“The images that come before thought are the phenomenology of the soul, the images after thought are the phenomenology of the mind” Gaston Bachelard
Review of Miltons working practice : by Gareth Stevens
People who have read and thought as much as Chris Milton don’t usually smile as continuously as he does. I meet him in his luminous and airy studio in an erstwhile stable building at the old railway terminus in Hastings. A former and long term educator in Art in some of the capital’s finest graduate Universities, his pedigree is strong and his lifelong and unflinching commitment to painting indisputable. Our conversation reels from domain to domain in an erratic orbit around his practice as an artist.
It is impossible to avoid disingenuity when writing about Milton’s work. How can you successfully write about his endeavours when the very point of his creative strategy is to swerve around words to arrive at deeper truth? His work explores a territory beneath the world inhabited by language. He vaults beyond the verbal to the more profound land of the collective unconscious with verve and spirit.
Whilst his paintings may initially appear chaotic and improvised (Milton has an enduring love of free Jazz), they hinge around his strong ability to draw and several central themes. His use of colour initially looks brash and yet is deeply considered. Colour he believes is the vehicle for emotion and meaning and he often uses it symbolically in ways drawn from religious iconography. He uses animals to connote ideas and attributes prescribed by world mythologies, but also to signify the instincts and other non-rational states of consciousness that are at the heart of his working method. The paintings often look like theatrical tableau in which the protagonists play out their parts in a highly compacted picture space that forces us into the here and now.
The brushwork is both frenetic and assured. His drawing expresses form, space and emotion so masterfully and economically that it belies the extent to which he is capable of a more traditional technical proficiency. Without swagger he controverts the traditional notion of what good drawing is, but it is true to say that you simply can’t produce work like this without having spent years honing one’s draughtsmanship. The speed and gestural quality of his mark-making throws up drawings of innate elegance which are bereft of laboured reworking. In that sense the works have an equivalence with the best eastern calligraphy without looking similar. There is clearly no stylistic appropriation here. Put simply, when he draws he cuts to the quick and fuses poetry with a life long observation of the human figure. He tells me that he abandoned trying to depict the world with an almost photographic eye for a more profound mission that was not just about demonstrating a highly detailed figurative skillset. Over many years he has striven for more intuitive clarity, and has unwaveringly attempted to circumvent the ego in search of a more complete sincerity.
If you are like me you will notice similarities between the work exhibited here and that of other artists. It recalls Basquiat, De Kooning, Guston as well as other ‘artisans’ that the world of ‘High Art’ has often relegated to the field of ethnographic or folk Art. Milton is not happy to accept any notion of his work being derivative. Instead he prefers to say that he has an affinity with the work of other notable artists and oeuvres. This is telling. In the same way that he believes that we all influenced by an a priori totemic pantheon of unconscious archetypes that straddle all cultures and times, many authentic artists are bound to work in analogous and comparable ways.
There are a range of intertwining dualities explored, celebrated and ultimately resolved within his artworks.
His paintings are a synthesis of accumulated and intense personal experiences and the collective sublime. It is this very juxtaposition of the transcendental and universal with a profane and everyday subjectivity, that gives real presence to his work. This is of course analogous with the inherent fusion of conscious intention and the more ‘automatic’ process that defines his working method.
Correspondingly Milton believes that to start to preconceive of how any one painting might take form, makes it prematurely stagnant from the outset. And so his initial intention is always and only intuitive and emotional. As paintings progress towards their resolved position he tries to avoid applying intellectual or technical criteria to make decisions. Rather he asks how does it look, what feeling is being generated and does it have authenticity? Preferring to work with the absence of forethought, he hopes to move away from a conclusive, descriptive or illustrative outcome; to open the creative process up to the prospect of deeper reverberations and towards multiple and equally valid interpretations. By doing this he assures that his paintings hint at something poetic, rather than merely describing events or ideas in a didactic way.
Milton’s project is to push himself and the viewer towards epiphany. Through intense scrutiny and reflection of his accumulated experience and more collective archetypes and imagery; through the analysis and expression of how these interplay, how they look in close proximity to each other he hopes to bed down a more enduring understanding of his and our shared subjectivity. In that sense the work, the artist’s experience of producing it and our consumption of it has to be revelatory. If the paintings are aesthetically successful then that is a bonus, a secondary concern.
This work hyperactively implies so much, it combines signs and symbols so imaginatively and yet does not proselytize, depict nor instruct. Chris Milton and arguably all artists on similar journeys, are first world shamans who struggle to connect with transcendental forces and to make them manifest in the material world so that we can observe them and reflect on them freely.