Light Bulbs is a large oil painting by Lisa Milroy of various types of domestic light bulb arranged in neat groupings and pictured with prominent shadows on an anonymous white surface. Milroy’s depiction of the objects has both realistic and impressionistic qualities: the bulbs are life-like in their execution and volume, yet they seem to quiver and flicker on the canvas. There is also perhaps a gem-like aspect to the objects, with their brass and aluminum fittings gleaming like gold and silver, and the smallest pieces taking on the appearance of diamonds or jewels. Milroy has stated that the painting should remain unframed.
Born in Canada, Milroy has lived and worked in London since 1978, when she moved to the city to study first at Saint Martin’s School of Art and then at Goldsmith’s College (where she graduated in 1982). Domestic items, including clothes, shoes and books, were the focus of her work from the beginning of her career. The artist painted these objects quickly and from memory, and using only eight colours to mix her paints. As she explained in a 2005 interview with curator Lewis Biggs:
During the 1980s, I painted most of my still life paintings in a single day. I had to work while the entire surface of the painting was wet in a bid to keep thought and action bound as one thing. If I stopped for any length of time, I lost the connection between the two and the painting fell apart.
(Quoted in Alan Cristea Gallery 2005, p.5.)
Towards the late 1980s the objects in Milroy’s work, which now extended from domestic items to Greek vases and Roman coins, were gradually spread out in more systematic arrangements. This work is one of five paintings of light bulbs Milroy created between 1988 and 1992, while Handles 1988 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), which also depicts what might be a display in a hardware store, was awarded first prize in the John Moores Painting Prize in 1989. From the 1990s onwards Milroy began to paint buildings, cityscapes, animals and people, as well as objects.
In their repetitive depiction of consumer products, Milroy’s paintings might be seen in relation to earlier movements featuring arrays of goods, such as pop art. However, her work may perhaps be more closely connected to painters who do not sit squarely within the pop tradition, such as the American artists Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920), who painted imaginary displays of cakes and hot dogs, and Jasper Johns (born 1930). Indeed, Biggs has suggested that Milroy’s object paintings might be aligned with Johns’s famous series depicting the American flag, as in both cases the artist produces ‘abstract paintings using an image that is also an object in a way that both recognises and empties out its everyday meanings’ (Biggs, Bradley and Criqui 2001, p.9).
Light Bulbs, the first work by the artist to be acquired by Tate, was initially displayed as part of Milroy’s show at the Nicola Jacobs Gallery, London, in May 1988. In 1989 it was included in the artist’s first solo exhibition at public galleries in the UK, in a show which began at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, before touring Southampton City Gallery and the Plymouth Art Gallery. Light Bulbs subsequently featured in Milroy’s 2001 retrospective at Tate Liverpool.
Ian Jeffrey, Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Nicola Jacobs Gallery, London 1988, reproduced no.7, unpaginated.
Lewis Biggs, Fiona Bradley and Jean-Pierre Criqui, Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, London 2001, p.17–18, reproduced p.50.
Lisa Milroy: Painting Fast, Painting Slow, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 2005.
Supported by Christie’s.