London

Lisa Milroy

Serpentine Galleries

A fur coat and red high-heeled shoes; a blue-and-white striped skirt; a bulging address book; a pile of clothes; a black party dress. These objects are taken out of context, set against thick, creamy grounds, then dealt with as a portraitist treats a sitter. There are huge variations within the chosen style: painterly, succulent, it recalls both Manet and Goya, with a hint of old-fashioned graphic illustration in the way the brush “draws” to mark an outline.

One of the sharpest curatorial moves of the year was Sarah Kent’s decision to take a group of Lisa Milroy’s paintings out of their Cork Street–gallery environment and present them in a comparatively neutral zone as part of a show called “Problems of Picturing.” There are problems galore. How defensible is it for a woman to paint luscious studies of party dresses? How defensible is it, during a recession, to paint fur coats and high-heeled shoes with that blend of reduced detail and increased allure that is generally reserved for decoy ducks and aging movie stars? Would charges of reactionary neo-Pop object-fetishism be satisfactorily countered if some conceptual motive underlay the entire project, revealing it as a demonstration of the commodity value of art itself?

Look carefully at the black tiered skirt, so large in relation to its frame that the overall painting is overwhelmingly dark. As the light catches the surface it appears that the parts inflected least were created by dynamic curved strokes, bearing no relation to volume or surface. Yet perhaps, after all, some relation does exist between the freedom of the gestures within their framework and the effect the skirt has—something like a lullaby. As the attention directed toward it is somehow dissipated, layer after layer rises out and up, as if of its own volition. The skirt’s positioning, its unpaintedness in relation to the solid richness against which it is set, the freedom with which the fabric is suggested, all hint that any proper analysis of the work would quickly depart from the identity of the garment itself and be attracted instead to night, darkness, childish pleasures. Itself a product of reverie, the painting exists to stimulate reverie in its viewer, parallel to the artist’s but not necessarily identical. Viewed in this light the fur coat and high heels assume a sinister air; the painting is about concealment, glamour, and treachery. Milroy stresses that the objects she paints are imaginary, not real.

The overriding feeling of nostalgia remains. Perhaps it has less to do with. the objects depicted than with their context. There is bound to be a context, yet this work begins by denying any—apart from painting itself, and it has been demonstrated time and again that painting is not self-sufficient. The odd thing is that the paintings seem aware of that, even if Milroy is not; they are all the more resonant because of their lonely, removed existence, their role as spurs to fantasy. In dreams, perhaps, we are all formalists.

Stuart Morgan