Russell Mills is an artist of paradox. Painter, illustrator, musician, graphic artist, stage designer - it is difficult to place him into neat categories and this disconcerts. How is it that a painter who looks to the earth and to the elements for his subject, paralleling nature in the working processes of his painting, is at the same time so adept with modem technology that he can produce an 8 tack CD or installations of the complexity of Ember Glance or Measured in Shadows. What is it that links these different practices? Discovery is a kind of excavation.
'Looking hack over the work of the last fifteen years what emerges is a vision of surprising consistency and an integrity to a sense of the role of the artist which is at once moral, philosophical and, I think importantly, also practical. Mills is one of the most fearless individuals I have come across and also one of the most generous. He has never been afraid to move into new ways of making or to collaborate with artists working in different disciplines from his own. Crucially in his explorations of new technologies he has used computer, light and recording studio in the same way that he uses paint, pigment and found object: as materials to be put into flux, guided, but never overshadowed, by the hand of the artist.
What lies at the heart of the work is a view that in matter, in the microcosm, a vision of reality is present. It is a vision of interconnection and an acknowledgement of attending darkness. Mills' work is informed by a wealth of references far wider than those of simply a visual discipline and although these are never reproduced in a literal sense within the work they underpin the apparent randomness of process. Science has taught us often necessity of death to enable re-birth - from the most minute living forms to the universe itself. Music has shown us a language still communicable when other linguistic facilities have been destroyed. Nature provides endless re-enactments of an order or pattern in apparently chaotic matter.
In Mills' work process is an expression of sensuous wonder - so unashamed enjoyment of the alchemy of substances: paint crackles, drips, veils, stains, leaves residue, implodes, reflects, absorbs. The past supports the future in a vision where history is fluid. The work acknowledges the necessity of death and the eradication of innumerable individual histories. Some of the found objects in the paintings and assemblages take on particular narrative resonance in this light: as evidences of Man's struggle to understand, contain, harness, subjugate the universe in which he finds himself.
In the maps, tools, traces of linguistic signs, the over-arching cloud of books ascending to the heavens - Mills shows how humans have evolved and constructed their own channels through which to comprehend existence. These evidences are not without poignancy yet they contain implicit warnings: glass shatters, stone edifice erodes, the metal of a computer part furs with rust. The earth takes back what has been taken from it.
Imagination and memory force us to contemplate these things, and if it does anything at all, shows us a way of connecting along this continuum. From within the dark; rich, melancholy surfaces and looking somehow from the edge, the rich fine flecks of colour, the incandescence of an insect's wing imply that these works are 'seeded with the possible'.
The activity of the artist is the 'search for the community of creation, for channels of communication, for me interval in infinity, the spare (MA) that opens to all everywhere and always.' It is not an attempt to literally reproduce or to re-order the evidences of nature but to work as an 'enabler' within it.
Two sites wherein you might see. One where an image comes in to play.
Another where it absents itself but not without trace
But it is not about correspondence. There is an indirect relation to the remembered work, but it cannot be made present here. It has to remain unseen.
You begin to see the works as an unseeing of the original, where it is not forgotten, but rather passed through as subject into the realm of material. Material containing the subject. Contained by and at the edge...'
Man has always sought for signs with which to comprehend the reality of existence - if only- to discover the paucity of what it is possible to understand. Without recourse to spiritual absolutes, with little mainstream function in society, it seems that artists are turning increasingly into themselves to find the subject matter for their work or moving into areas where a collision of disciplines offers freedom from linear readings. Experience is complex, multi-layered, simultaneous. I think of Schwitters's Ur Sonata - that disturbing incantation of guttural, repetitious sound which builds to describe the first strugglings towards languages. It tells of anguish and necessity. Or Beuys's monumental Seven Thousand Oaks - the single trees with their immutable basalt markers, a living reminder of Nature's vulnerability in the face of irresponsible progress. I remember Vermeer's pearl - as light and brushstroke and paint dissolve in the acceptance of illusion and the reality of the moment in the painting comes into being, with a kind of wonder.
Dublin, February 1997
Night. Winter dark. I sense the water only and smell the sweet, sickly smell of yeast that hangs in the air. Walking upwards it is so quiet I wonder if I have arrived at the wrong time. I hear a murmuring and enter the first room, which is empty. Traces here: a beetle's wing; the drip of tallow; pages stained into incomprehension, foxed with moss flower and the patterning of termites. Further in, the land is scored, broken open to show skull, skin, seed pods. The earth bleeds, heaves, disgorges her contents - the flotsam of centuries, all only now evidences of past time. And further still - from dark to darkness lightening. A cathedral. Concrete form and form dissolving into shadow and into light and into shadow...
Meaning comes into being on the edge; it is fluid - it exists in the space between artefact, sound, word and interpretation.
© Emma Hill, 1998.
Almost ten years ago Ian Walton gave me a box: a smoke grey frame surrounds what at first appears to be some kind of ancient artifact. The colour is strange - bruised browns, mottled blues, dulled purples. Scatterings of sand and pebbles chine colle the remnants of what was once paper so that it has become like a transparent skin. At its centre transfixed like a flower, is a battered, half-burned match book, dusted still with pink.
The effect of the painting is well described by its title eb...eb, for as with all Walton's art it requires time and quiet contemplation for the multi-layered meanings of this work fully to resonate. It is a painting which over the years has become more significant to me, as someone who exhibits the work of contemporary artists, in defining what is still important in the language of certain individuals working today.
It seems that we are living at a particular moment of crossing over - a time of changes in physical boundaries and cultural hegemonies. The world is speeding up, technological advances divide the generations and man is moving inexorably from the natural world and its immutable cycles. In visual art the viewer has had to learn to deconstruct a form of expression now divorced from any fundamentally religious or social function. The artist and the viewer both have become more self-conscious as our art becomes increasingly self-referential. The dissection of meanings has developed a language in visual art which leaves little that cannot be said. We have become uncomfortable with mysteries and seem in danger of obscuring the fundamental language of the visual image, with its peculiar resistance to discussion and its own profound logic - we are in danger of losing the language of silence.
To me Walton shares the artistic sensibilities of such figures in the twentieth century as Schwitters, Beuys and Kiefer. Like them he uses the discarded and forgotten to fashion objects of profound and poignant beauty and while his work is deeply subjective in its observation and emotional content it is free from egotism. He has in common with these artists also something I can only describe as a kind of moral certitude about the role of the artist: as seer, as regenerator. He is not afraid to place the frail, the shabby, the unadorned before us as objects for contemplation. He is not afraid to say that these things matter, not that consciousness must by necessity include sadness.
Walton's work is landbased: land as metaphor for time and for the mind. Working slowly (sometimes over the course of 3 or 4 months) he parallels in his creative activity the central subjects in his paintings. While not attempting to literally depict nature's ceaseless transformations, the manufactured surfaces of his large canvases do certainly resemble the excavated earthwork, the dried-up river bed and the slow stainings of moss, rust and lichen on man-made artifice. The time it takes to make these paintings is important, for this slow evolution seems to trap an emotional content into the 'object' of the work itself. Just as nature preserves relics and fossils, Walton's layerings of bitumen, metals, ash, wax, paint and dust draw into the paintings particular memories, subjective and personal, but transmuted like shadows and whispers, allowing the viewer space for their own imagination and imaginings.
(c)Emma Hill 1995
Emma Hill is Founder / Director of The Eagle Gallery, London which was established in 1991 to promote the work of contemporary British artists through a regular programme of exhibitions and installations. She established the Dinosaur Press in 1990 as a private imprint to encourage the collaboration of artists and contemporary writers in bookwork projects. Dinosaur Press publications are in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Tate Gallery Library, London; the British Council, London and the Arts Council of Great Britain.