This painting depicts seventeen Japanese woodblock prints in an apparently haphazard arrangement on a plain white background. The prints appear to be reproductions of typical ukiyo-e prints, decorative scenes of domestic life in classical Japan. Women in elaborate and colourful kimonos walk through blooming gardens, apply make-up or tend to their children. The prints lie scattered, overlapping each other; those in the foreground cast shadows on those underneath. Each of the prints has a wide white border. They have the simple compositions and high viewpoint associated with their genre; the plain white background in some of the prints echoes the white background of the painting.
Japanese prints have inspired Western art since the mid-nineteenth century; their influence on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting has been extensively documented. Untitled is one of a series of paintings of Japanese prints Milroy made in her London studio in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her interest in Japanese art and culture led to several visits to Japan in the following decade.
Milroy made her name as an artist with paintings in which everyday objects are repeated across a clean, stark background. For instance, Shoes, 1986 (Tate T06532) shows twelve identical pairs of black court shoes in various configurations. The choice of consumer objects as subject matter and the use of repetition in these works suggest an affinity with the strategies of American Pop art, particularly the work of Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Jasper Johns (born 1930) and Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920). Although Milroy’s object paintings have been interpreted in terms of commodity fetishism, recent critical attention has focussed on the formal qualities of her work. Milroy is an accomplished painter who is interested in the particularities of her chosen medium. Her paintings address representation, the depiction of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane. The layering of prints and the use of shadow in Untitled recall strategies from trompe-l’oeil painting. Milroy’s aim, however, is not to deceive the viewer but rather to draw attention to what paint can do.
In the early 1990s, Milroy’s approach to composition changed and Untitled marks a shift away from the more formal alignment of objects in her earlier work. She has spoken this period, saying, ‘After having repeated things so much and lined them up in a measured way, I became interested in a composition that involved more random distribution. Gradually I began to concentrate more and more on the placement of objects. Their arrangement began to become more interesting to me than their appearances’ (quoted in Tatsumi Shinoda, ‘On Lisa Milroy’s Tokyo Story’, Lisa Milroy: Tokyo Story, p.9). The all-over composition of Untitled does not privilege any one part of the painting.
Curator Lewis Biggs has described Milroy’s work as a form of abstraction. He has said, ‘Milroy’s are abstract paintings that use images as freely as some other abstract painters might use colours and shapes’ (Biggs, ‘Lisa Milroy’, Lisa Milroy, pp.7-8). She is interested in the mental construction of images; the objects in her paintings are closer to the thoughts and memories of certain things than to the things themselves. Although the prints in Untitled are rendered in detail, they collectively form a representation of generic Japanese prints.
Lewis Biggs, Fiona Bradley and Jean-Pierre Criqui, Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, 2001, reproduced no.3 in colour.
David Plante and Lynne Cooke, Lisa Milroy, exhibition catalogue, Third Eye Gallery, Glasgow and Southampton City Art Gallery, 1989.
Tatsumi Shinoda, Lisa Milroy: Tokyo Story, exhibition catalogue, Gallery Shoko Nagai, Tokyo, 1994.