Girl with Sunglasses 1998 is a landscape-orientated painting, almost square in its dimensions, depicting a young woman set against a grey background that darkens gradually from the top to the bottom of the painting. The woman is shown from the shoulders upwards in the centre of the composition, and turns slightly to her right as she stares into the distance with a tight-lipped, pensive expression. She has pale skin, with a discernible redness to her cheeks and chin, and straight light-brown shoulder-length hair. Dark sunglasses rest on the top of her head, a daisy-shaped earring can be seen in her right ear, and she wears a flowery patterned top that leaves the upper part of her arms visible. 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.
This work was made by the British-Canadian artist Lisa Milroy in London, where she has lived and worked since 1978. She had 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 with Sunglasses is among a small series of works, which also includes Girl 1998 (Tate T07432), 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 with Sunglasses seems to draw further attention to notions of looking and image-making through the inclusion of sunglasses on the woman’s head, to which the title makes reference.
Depicted without any additional context – the grey background offering an apparently neutral setting – and without overt facial expression, the woman depicted in Girl with Sunglasses 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 that 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 with Sunglasses 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, p.3, reproduced p.21.
Lewis Biggs, Fiona Bradley and Jean-Pierre Criqui, Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2001, reproduced p.115.
Lisa Milroy: Painting Fast, Painting Slow, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 2005.
Supported by Christie’s.