Monday, 23 May 2011

Hugh Miller, The Glasshouse Mill Series at The Old Truman Brewery

Having not been to East London for a few months I enjoyed weaving between the suits and skirts, the haircuts and have-nots, the frowns and furrows of Bishopsgate at 6 o’clock on a Thursday evening. I was on my way to see an exhibition I came upon by chance while aimlessly fluttering through twitter pages the previous lunchtime. It was towards Brick Lane, to be precise the Old Truman Brewery, but as to which part of the brewery I had no idea. The assemblage of buildings comprises nearly 250 businesses, and even though the area is already bustling and alive with energy it’s to undergo further redevelopment over the next couples of years as part of the ongoing Tower Hamlets Council City Fringe Area Action Plan (you’d have thought they would have come up with an acronym for that by now).

After heading inside the entrance by Vibe bar I was redirected by a helpful receptionist to Shop 14. The space was a strong-armed stone’s throw away, my path passing bottled beer imbibers and high pitched yells of Brazilian dance lessons. At this time of day it’s quite like an open air leisure centre for the good looking proletariat of EC1.

Welcomed by a pretty-skirted girl handing out glossy programmes I was immediately hit with the smell. The images I looked at online prior to going gave no sense of the sheer density of application. That oily hum hung thick in the air before gradually fading as the space filled up. I’d not been there for longer than five minutes before a bright eyed man appeared before me offering Prosecco from a small riveted plastic cup. On reflection I don’t recall it being empty the entire time I was there, the smiling student going about her business topping us all up with gusto. The crowd was a mix of friends and fans, the glamorous weekend supplement flickers with absent husbands and a friend to lean on after fizz-fuelled Waiter flirting, and pods of people who were well turned out and highly buffed seemed to make up the Glasshouse public.

 I was glad to have arrived early. Having emailed Hugh the day before I took it as an opportunity to say hello and speak briefly about the project before he had more important people to talk to. The soft handed handshake seemed somewhat strange considering his two and half year period of near isolation spent in the Yorkshire Dales, working daily across eighteen canvases simultaneously. You could tell he was proud of the work, and rightly so, and there was a real sense from him that the paintings evolved as he spent time working with them. The outcome was probably similar to what he planned, yet with numerous shifts and tweaks along the way.

In all, ten seasons were covered, and although when hung in order there would be a sense of chronology, Miller wanted to take his own direction with the curatorship by hanging the pieces depending more on their palette and how certain pictures complimented each other. It was only after talking to another bright eyed loquacious man (who was presumably part of the curatorial team) that I learnt of a different plan for the hang that didn’t take shape. The pieces looking up at the sky through the trees would be hung on the ceiling, the views looking up stream would be placed higher up the wall, and other images where the viewer is placed inside the picture would then be hung at eye level. You get the idea. It would have been a full 180 degree experience. Unfortunately the prohibitive logistics meant it simply wasn’t possible with the space available.

However, this is taking nothing away from how the show currently exists. Alive with animation, the conglomeration of colour and action give the entire space a sense of vitality. This is what painting in 2011 is to the dreamers. A nail on the head moment of materials, commitment, a marvellous eye and Duracell patience capturing moments in nature that are seen on occasions through life but rarely caught and committed to canvas. Combined, they formed a kind of kaleidoscopic wallpaper to what is usually a glass-walled building.

All eighteen pieces were untitled because to title them would be to lose the concept. There is an element of nostalgic joy of childhood memories running around those woods. You’re challenged by the fact that all eighteen pieces exist as a whole, yet you can’t help but be drawn to a couple that become your favourites. For me the two that fixed me were the view up the sun dappled river, and the Autumnal oranges looking skywards as if you were lying on your back amongst the leaves.

The ‘Spring Green’ as I will call it has you poised, looking up stream to a shimmering white line leading up the right hand side of the canvas. I suppose we’re all familiar with ‘action painting’, the drip techniques started in the fifties, but Miller fashions his technique by adorning it over a precisely made foundation of dark greens, cadmium yellows and white. It makes you want to dip your fingers in and smell the algae, while looking up to appreciate the luminous scattering of light above you in one swift movement. Likewise in the ‘Autumn Red’ the auburns and oranges of the maple-like leafs leave you tied, back-bound, wishing you got up earlier. Instead they leave you glaring at the gloom of the grey October sky. Applying thickly straight from the tube, carving and scraping and dabbing all convene into this wonderful impression of the woods and water around you.

Miller manages to elevate what could be lazily labelled as Impressionism by adding a sense of unpredictable woodland sound to the equation. Onomatopoeic words swim around your mind when looking at these pieces. Renoir and Seurat were capable of applying a beautifully tender touch to give a sense of nature’s fragility to urban landscapes, yet Miller has done the reverse in that he has recognised our heavy feet in these beautiful natural landscapes. He mentioned that he would use nearly £40 worth of paint to mix a palette for autumn, and still find himself using remnants of that palette as winter approached. It was as if his palette evolved alongside the seasons he was depicting. This is painting in action in the most literal sense. A superb project involving a relationship that developed between artist and landscape over ten colour saturated seasons. If you are a fan of paint you must see this.