Room 1997 is a very large landscape-orientated painting, almost square in its dimensions, depicting a traditional Japanese interior. The work takes a frontal perspective on the space, which is decorated in muted colours and furnished in an orderly, minimalist style. On the left side of the room are translucent gridded windows that extend almost from the floor to the ceiling, while the right side consists of a white sliding door that is open, revealing a glimpse of an empty space beyond, with smaller closed white doors above it. The far end of the room is divided by intersecting wooden beams set against a sea green wall that features a grey wall hanging displaying a gridded pattern. Below and to the left of the wall hanging stands a small vase that is perched on a thin ledge and contains flowers with curving stems – the only non-geometric element in the composition. Also at the back of the room are additional white cupboards, with one set positioned above an inverted wall section housing recessed windows. The ceiling of the room is wooden, and the floor is empty and covered in finely woven green rectangular mats arranged in a neat formation. The work is precisely rendered, 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 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.
Room can be seen in the context of the artist’s long-standing engagement with Japanese culture. While Milroy initially created paintings featuring reproductions of Japanese prints in 1986, her interest in Japan grew more pronounced following the first of many visits to the country in 1989. In 1993 she made a series of small paintings featuring shops, advertisements and consumer goods in Tokyo that stemmed from a three-month residency in the city, and in 1994 she completed a series of larger canvases based on buildings in Kyoto. Other paintings she made in the 1990s featured Japanese kimonos and sweets, and in the subsequent decade geisha became a prominent subject for Milroy, with this traditional Japanese female figure appearing in works such as the four-panelled Painting Fast Painting Slow 2004. In a 2005 interview with the curator Lewis Biggs, Milroy said:
Japan is certainly the most visually engaging place I’ve ever been to, and the most foreign. Perhaps it’s this combination – the pleasure in being drawn in through what I see and the alienation of being shut out through not understanding the language or social customs – that makes it so compelling.
(Quoted in Alan Cristea Gallery 2005, p.8.)
With its close attention to the geometries of interior space and the arrangement of domestic furnishings, Room may be compared with the carefully ordered compositions that characterised Milroy’s work throughout the 1980s. Her paintings from this time commonly 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). Room can also be assessed alongside other works the artist created in the mid-1990s, such as Vancouver Living Room 1994 and Finsbury Square 1995 (Tate T07128), that depict architectural interiors and exteriors in a frontal manner and dispassionate style.
In 2001 the curator Fiona Bradley assessed how the composition of Room – a title which seems to be as studiously neutral as the space depicted is orderly and harmonious – might connect to the ambiguous meanings the painting holds:
Room (1997) lines up a series of surfaces, parallel and at right angles to the canvas, and describes them. The room is full of articulated space – the sliding planes of the cupboards, the horizontals of the shelves, the flatness of the tatami mats on the floor. Every inch of the painting is full of noted detail, very particularly Japanese detail, and yet this is still a painting of an empty room. Empty in fact, and empty in aspiration: we are free to fill it with our own idea of what a Japanese room could be.
(Fiona Bradley, ‘Lisa Milroy’s Painting’, in Biggs, Bradley and Criqui 2001, p.21.)
Lisa Milroy: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Waddington Galleries, London 1998, reproduced p.13.
Lewis Biggs, Fiona Bradley and Jean-Pierre Criqui, Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2001, pp.21–2, reproduced p.107.
Lisa Milroy: Painting Fast, Painting Slow, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 2005, reproduced p.23.
Supported by Christie’s.