Still life is a genre of painting which has fascinated artist NICK MILLER, who is also known for his portraiture, and forms the basis of his new exhibition at the Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin …
Nick Miller’s approach to observational painting evolved in the late 1980s, and has been inspired by the writings of the existential Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. In Buber’s seminal work I and Thou (1923), Miller found a useful creative and personal framework for understanding how he might engage the world. The result is highly-charged paintings which engage with their subjects.
Your new exhibition, “Rootless”, engages with nature and focuses on still life. When did this subject and genre start to inspire you?
I’ve always worked within what might be seen as the traditional genres of painting: portraiture, landscape and still life, switching between them for periods of time. But in truth, I am most interested in how I look and respond with paint rather than what I am painting. It is the possibilities of engagement that present themselves when working directly with a subject that occupies me. I only paint in real time, with the person there or a wilting flower, and I don’t alter the paintings later, they succeed or fail on the energy of that encounter.
Nature I think can be understood both in terms of what we understand of our own ‘nature’ or selfhood, and as the wider context of the natural world, of the extraordinary universe in which we exist. Exploring that meeting point between self and the universe has become the engine of my creative urge. Painting for me is a way of paying attention to that connection, or more accurately, of practicing it so that I have a chance to feel alive and present in the world.
Portraits are my most continuous activity over time. I really see landscapes and still life in the same terms as portraiture, of attempting to hold presence and life in material and in two dimensions on a canvas.
You also combine new works with some old – specifically “Vessels: Nature Morte” which references your time at North West Hospice, Sligo, could you tell me about this?
Working there on a collaborative arts project coincided with the loss of my own parents over a four-year period and I had begun to work in my own studio painting the same flowers/weeds that I used as subjects while working in the hospice. I placed them in the studio in vases, which my mother had collected. It became a way I could connect to her, even when I was not physically there. The whole process of painting still lives became charged with an urgency, a holding of life before it passes. I wanted to show a few of these smaller works in this show as they provide a key to the larger paintings that evolved later.
As time passed, I continued to paint still life, but no longer with that direct energetic source that personal loss can be. My approach was changing, partly by an increase in scale, making them more challenging and visually complex, taking them beyond the intimacy of the smaller works and more towards the ‘ordered chaos’ of the universe.
Do you have any particular favourite canvas from your new exhibition, and why?
I don’t really have favourites, but “Whitethorn Turning” the largest piece in the show refers both to the point where the blossom begins to turn from white to a browny-pink but also to a turning in my own nature that allowed the newer work to evolve. The painting is first in a new series of large canvases that I will be exhibiting next in London in 2019, so it was the one that let me move on to new painting pastures and possibilities making it particularly important for me.
How and where do you work?
I’ve been living in county Sligo since 1992, first inland on Lough Arrow, and now by the sea. For the last eleven years I’ve leased a large shed, a warehouse under Ben Bulben, in the yard of a steel fabricator, so it is in an uncommon mix of the rural, the scenic, and of industry. I rattle around in there doing whatever it is I do. My old truck, a mobile studio, sits outside looking at the mountain. But it no longer moves, so landscape is on hold any the moment. Despite being by the sea for so long, I still have not found a way to paint it that works for me, but it is there in my mind all the time, waiting for something to fall into place.
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