London

Lisa Milroy

Alan Christea Gallery

The paintings that made Lisa Milroy’s reputation in the late ’80s were concatenations of reiterated, similar-but-different images: tires in one painting, folded shirts in another, even Greek vases or (significantly enough, as will be seen) Japanese prints, and so on, all rendered in a restrained, earnest way that was surprisingly painterly, given that they ended up evoking a nearly photorealist objectivity subsumed to the tabular space of the grid. Since then she’s plowed through vast stylistic terrain, though without ever relinquishing her interest in the dialogue between painting and the reproductive media of which photography is just one, albeit the most important. But, for anyone who’s stuck on that first impression of Milroy’s work, her new paintings will come as a complete surprise: Who would have expected her to end up making these loose, offbeat, cartoonlike paintings about a gaggle of geishas who seem to have stepped right out of the Floating World into an equally timeless American West?

Milroy’s geishas made their American journey by air, as we see in Geishas in Flight, 2002, which might be a parody of an allover abstraction based on a skewed grid but actually shows the girls stuffed into their coach-class seats, the orange chopsticks in their hair substituting for the abstractionist’s blue poles or other structuring devices. The painting is full of wry observations—the one geisha with the eye shades and neck pillow is particularly well captured—but what finally clinches the painting is the sheer verve of Milroy’s fast and loose paint handling as well as the fluidity of her line. I can’t help but wonder what a Japanese viewer would make of these paintings. For all their play with the humor of incongruity in showing the geishas riding the range (Lonesome Geishas, 2002), eating take-out pizza (Geishas Mucho Gusto, 2002), or consulting a shrink (Therapy Session, 2002), they are not primarily about difference or exoticism. On the contrary, Milroy treats the geishas as comfortably familiar figures who can be affectionately ribbed but who are fundamentally independent women (theirs is an almost all-female world) unconstrained by their assumed roles. For all that, the paintings’ lightness of tone may be their greatest limitation as well as a source of their charm. A few of them (Lost Geishas, 2002, Shipwrecked!, 2002, and, more subtly, Nobody’s Watching, 2002) gesture toward an ironic form of seriousness through their deeper space and more heavily shadowed, desert-sunset palette, but it’s really Mourning Geisha, 2002, and Searching Geisha, 2003, a couple of elegantly concise grisailles (in acrylic rather than the prevailing oil paint), that afford Milroy an opportunity to explore a more somber territory in which humor and incongruity are not absent but somehow contribute to the predominant restrained melancholy. But as art historian Dawn Ades remarks in the exhibition brochure, “these paintings seem to be bidding farewell to the geishas,” pointing their way toward yet another phase in Milroy’s polymorphous career.

My dictionary tells me that, etymologically, “geisha” comes from roots signifying “art” and “person.” The adventures of Milroy’s art persons suggest that existence in the aesthetic mode is not so much a form of removal from worldly vicissitudes as a particular way of living them—obliquely, the way the painter lives out her own quandaries through her work.

Barry Schwabsky