Girl 1998 is a landscape-orientated painting, almost square in its dimensions, that presents a young woman in profile view against a black background. Shown from her left side and with her face illuminated and her neck in shadow, the woman is painted from the shoulders upwards, and positioned slightly to the right of the composition. She wears dark sunglasses and holds her mouth closed, and her blonde hair is tied in a small bun at the back of her head. Her light grey and black clothing is slightly visible at the bottom of the painting. The work is precisely rendered in a realist style almost reminiscent of a photograph, with the paint evenly applied in thin layers that produce a very smooth surface. It is displayed without a frame.
This work was made by the British-Canadian artist Lisa Milroy in London, where she has lived and worked since 1978. She moved to the city that year to study first at Saint Martin’s School of Art and then at Goldsmith’s College, from which she graduated in 1982 and where her tutors included the British painters Michael Craig-Martin and Basil Beattie. Girl is among a small series of works, which also includes Girl with Sunglasses 1998 (Tate T07433), that are based on photographs taken by Milroy in the summer of 1997. Reluctant to sit face-to-face with a model, the artist used a telephoto lens to capture people waiting in busy parts of London (see Elisabeth Lebovici, ‘Patience’, trans. by David Britt, in Waddington Galleries 1998, p.3). In this respect, the works may be seen as confirming the view, outlined by the curator Lewis Biggs in 2001, that Milroy’s paintings are ‘carefully constructed paintings of images’ (Lewis Biggs, ‘Lisa Milroy’, in Biggs, Bradley and Criqui 2001, p.11). In addition to its almost photographic quality, Girl seems to draw further attention to notions of looking and image-making through the inclusion of dark opaque sunglasses that mean the woman’s eyes are not visible.
These sunglasses may also be seen as contributing to a sense of mystery surrounding the woman depicted in Girl. Painted without any additional context – the black background offering an apparently neutral setting – and without overt facial expression, the figure remains ambiguous. Milroy began painting portraits in 1996, and in 1998 the art historian Elisabeth Lebovici emphasised the uncertain nature of her figures: ‘They are somebody and they are nobody: their identities, feelings, thoughts, desires, even their images are mysterious’ (Lebovici in Waddington Galleries 1998, p.3). In a 2005 interview with Biggs, Milroy described her approach to painting people as ‘considering them purely as surfaces to be described’ with the resulting effect that the works ‘evoke the absence of a person rather than their presence’ (quoted in Alan Cristea Gallery 2005, pp.10–11).
Milroy’s work in the 1980s was characterised by carefully ordered compositions that featured grids, rows and columns of objects, ranging from everyday items such as books and clothes to collections of stamps and butterflies (see, for example, Shoes 1985, Tate T06532, and Light Bulbs 1988, Tate T05217). These were pictured against anonymous white or cream surfaces and such paintings were usually created in a single day. In the early 1990s the subject matter of Milroy’s paintings expanded to include streets, buildings and landscapes in works that were often created over longer periods of time, and which were heavily influenced by journeys the artist made in Japan, Italy, North America and Africa (see, for example, Lisa Milroy: Travel Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Chisenhale Gallery, London 1995). A more cartoon-like aspect to her painting has emerged from the late 1990s onwards, in works such as the large oil painting Memories 2000, which evoke forms of graphic storytelling.
Girl was first displayed as part of Milroy’s solo exhibition at the Waddington Galleries in London in 1998.
Lisa Milroy: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Waddington Galleries, London 1998, pp.3, 5, reproduced p.9.
Lewis Biggs, Fiona Bradley and Jean-Pierre Criqui, Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2001, reproduced p.116.
Lisa Milroy: Painting Fast, Painting Slow, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 2005.
Supported by Christie’s.