Childhood memories, false fictions and psychedelic visions come together using trolls and tales.
Artist Millie Kelly tells me that the London art scene is “somewhat different” to that of the Devonshire coastline, but as I approach her works, I can sense the swirling motion of waves within them. Millie’s rural upbringing further manifests itself in her depictions of animals, these often mediating between roles of nostalgia and narrative. Memories and thoughts contrast with impulse on the canvas, as the artist collages paintings together to “understand or completely falsify these memories into new fictions”. These works create dizzying and immersive pulses of colour which allows us to lose ourselves in a dream of trolls, snakes, ice creams, and even pigeons, the so-called pests of society that Millie embraces with arms as open as the wings she paints. The medium of painting, for her, is exciting as she revels in manipulating its gloopy, plastic and synthetic qualities into a melange of shifting characters that feels “unrestricted and alive”. When I ask whether the artist dabbles in other artistic disciplines, she responds that drawing allows her to adopt an unsentimental mentality that draws out a less provisional and looser style of working. Through drawing, Millie “adopts the mind-set of a child whereby an action is repeated without purpose until it’s exhausted”. Repetition is a key element that is present across all four corners of the artist’s canvases, from scales on the body of a snake to strands of hair on the head of a lion, this only engaging further with themes of hypnotism and exploration. In the future, Millie hopes to continue working and learning in her practice with paint, but potentially in new climates and landscapes, and possibly back within the walls of academia.
Millie Kelly b.1993, Teignmouth, Devon graduated BA Fine Art (Painting) at Wimbledon College of Art, London. She will exhibit in Darlings of The Underground, Subsidiary Projects and has previously shown at B.A.E.S, London, at The Oxo Tower, London and at the end of her Artpiq Summerhouse Residency in Dusseldorf, amongst others. Millie was awarded the Clyde & Co Art Prize in 2016. Millie Kelly currently lives in London and works from her studio at Zona Mista in Peckham.
BACKGROUND & PROCESS
You graduated from Wimbledon College of Art with a BA in Fine Art (Painting). How was your time there? Did you feel connected to your peers? What about the tutors?
Wimbledon was great! The college itself was compact, the studios were shared amongst years, and there was a genuine camaraderie amongst peers. The painting-specific course meant that both students and tutors had a real passion for paint as a medium. During my time at Wimbledon, I studied under artist Dan Coombs and also artist Phillip Allen from Turps, both of who continue to influence my practice.
You moved from Devon to London to study. What was your life like there, and what struck you about London when you relocated?
I grew up in a small seaside town called Teignmouth, and had maybe only been to London twice before moving here. The sea air was substituted for art galleries and friends who wore Dr. Martens… The London art scene was somewhat different to that of the Devonshire coastline, but I was overwhelmed and incredibly grateful for the accessibility to art on my doorstep in London.
What is your process like? Do you have any rituals?
I spend lots of time drawing. I sketch from my own images and ones plucked from the internet. I replicate these drawings again and again from memory or as a progression from the previous drawing. This process allows me to find compositions and form that have an organic quality, which I can then transfer into paint. This process is compulsive. I find myself adopting the mindset of a child whereby an action is repeated without purpose until it’s exhausted or I get distracted by another interesting idea! It excites me that these drawings are made frantically and without sentimentality. I guess it’s the disposable nature of these intuitive drawings gives me the freedom to paint in a way that’s looser and more provisional.
There seems to be a lot going on in your compositions: a powerful narrative, a mishmash of characters, and a myriad of activities. Are you interested in overwhelming the viewer through this collision of elements, which often extend out of the canvas?
Yes, for sure! I’ve always been desperately attracted to the idea of ‘more’ being ‘more’ when it comes to imagery within a composition. The paintings are collaged together through this melee of impulse and contrasting ideas. This process can mean that my subject matter is often mismatched or that objects sit awkwardly with one another, but I enjoy the alchemy of confusion on the canvas.
What’s the relationship between the sexual and the sinister in your work?
Neither the sinister nor the sexual are massively obvious in the works. There are often hints at perversion, or the things that are sexual are precursors; it’s almost what’s not shown in the painting is what makes the work become sinister. The pants flying through the air, the panic look in an animals’ eyes, the death of a bird… the narrative hints towards something sexual or sinister but we are unsure of how to determine it or where it originated.
Perspective is a key point in your paintings, often subverting it through movement and psychedelic effects such as spirals. Can you develop on these gestural actions?
I play with perspective to abstract the figurative or to create pattern. I try to keep the eye moving around canvas, which could be with psychedelic spirals per se, or just with paint as a material – with all its gloopiness and wetness. I manipulate my imagery to imply imminent movement and the close up crop of these works aid a more intriguing composition, particularly when working on a smaller scale.
There seems to be an illustrative thread amongst your practice, combined with a more painterly approach. What’s the interrelation between these two?
I create spaces within my paintings to use illustration as a descriptive tool alongside more gestural and fluid representation. I simplify my patterns and repeated subjects to distil them down to their essential forms; often to cover a plane or recess that directs the eye towards the painterly. I use this technique alongside areas of luscious or heavily applied paint, as it is the difference in these languages that excites me. It’s this difference that creates the jarring or awkwardness in my work, alongside the range of subjects.
What is your position behind your use of colour? Is this based on your economy as an emerging artist, or based on your mood?
Magpies are attracted to shiny things. Young children are attracted to colourful things. I feel like I can definitely relate to both! I use colour in my paintings to create narrative. The garish, acidic, colours in ‘Quick Buck’ are bold and invasive like the composition and the erratic nature of the subject, but I like to use colour specifically to describe each of my subjects differently. The pigeon series utilises more harmony and softer tones, which are at odds to the bustling relationships between the subjects, but renders them in a more sensitive manner, like the feathers of a bird! I’ve collected paints over the years, and whilst cerulean and the cadmiums are expensive, my palette is pretty demanding of them.
There’s a strong 90’s nostalgia regarding the characters that appear in your works. Can you tell me more about these motifs?
The 90’s were my childhood. I’ve chosen to paint characters of that era because they deal with my own nostalgia and how I view that as fetishised memory. For me, these characters provide a comforting but unsettling fiction that inhabits a space, in painting, that feels unrestricted and alive.
You are taking your work in a new direction lately, going forward with smaller-scale pieces, working on a series, and repeating the same motif. Do you feel an urge of changing your approach?
Yes, I definitely felt an urge to switch things up a little. I felt like I was exhausting my previous approach, and needed to get unstuck. The idea behind the pigeons was this panicked, manic addition to a work. I wanted to make smaller paintings to quickly achieve this sensation. A new scale and a new methodology loosened me up, and it felt important for me to work on a series that was closer related. Alongside each other and in series, the pigeons take on a range of human emotions, but in essence are the same subject.
Many of your early works present surreal or even absurdist approaches to childhood memories. Are these hints of childhood slightly branching away in your most recent works?
Yes, there are definitely still underlying hints of childhood in these recent works and the idea of play continues to have importance in my making process. I believe play to be the continuation of creation, where there is no consideration for an end. Whilst the pigeons’ series is coherent, and compositionally pre-determined, the way that I describe them in paint is always provisional and open-ended.
There are some materials such as spray cans or oil bars that you’ve left apart to focus on oil for the works on canvas. Are you working towards a more layered approach to painting?
There’s a clunkiness to oil bar and spray paint that I’ve exploited in previous works. They’re great for creating dirtier, viscous passages, and areas of haze. However, particularly with the pigeon series, I wanted to scale back on materials and hone in on a more specific range of brushwork.
Aladdin inspired pigeons, goats suspended from helicopters, a childhood donkey game. What can you tell me about the varied subjects in your work, and are they related to real life events?
To me, it would feel strange to make work that is so far removed from my everyday life or impersonal. I fear it’d become hollow or insincere. For this reason, I filter through my own memories and life events and select those, whether absurd or meaningful as a vehicle for new works. The memories I make into paintings have not necessarily impacted my life drastically, or at all in some cases. They are often just images I’ve recorded unknowingly or stolen as false memories from a shared nostalgia. Painting memories or objects from my past is a way of understanding or completely falsifying these memories into new fictions.
Pigeons are often conceived as ‘rats with wings’ within society. What intrigues you about depicting these often ignored birds in particular?
There’s a quote I found from London Pigeons, a funny and in-depth study of London’s pigeons … ‘Firstly, there is the risk that more people may become pigeon fanatics, and that they may spend too much time watching them and not being productive to society.’ Possibly my favourite snippet of text I found during my research of pigeons! These urban birds of our city are like humans; migrating around London in their masses. They’re everywhere yet hardly noticed… unless they’re dead or injured. The pigeons have become a forefront in this recent body of work. I introduced the pigeons initially to create a sense of mania in what I thought to be a fairly static painting, ‘Quick Buck’. I’ve now anthropomorphised my birds as if choreographed, dancing, fighting, and frolicking. They are given narratives outside of their assumed status as vermin and present a range of human emotions, often reflecting my own mood or a mischievous, joyous approach to painting.
Your devotion for painting is something that you are proud of, being drawing the only other medium you work with. Are you open to work with different mediums, or is it not the right moment yet?
Paint as a material really excites me! It’s gloopy, plastic, and synthetic nature can be manipulated in so many ways. There’s still no greater pleasure than opening a fresh tube of Dianthus Pink… delicious! I’m always keen to experiment, and would love to learn a new discipline at some point. But honestly, each time I paint, I learn something new. So perhaps unless that desire to paint ever flounders, I feel there’s still so much to be explored.
Where do the titles of your works come from? Is there a story behind every one?
The titles often come half way through the painting, when I’ve got a clearer idea of what the painting will be. If I get stuck on how to title, I turn to my trusty friend ‘The Oxford Dictonary of Nursery Rhymes’ which is a great tool for title inspiration. I found a wryness in 17th and 18th Century nursery rhymes; contrasting a sinister tone with childish, song-like delivery.
Depictions of squids, donkeys, birds, snakes, cats, fish, monkeys, octopuses, and the list goes on… What do these animals mean to you? Do these species somehow relate or reflect upon humans?
The human/ animal relationship is apparent in my everyday life. The animals I portray in the paintings often have human-like expressions or actions, especially with their eyes and in their gaze. They are staged theatrically, suggesting relationships with one another. I became interested in the transformation of working animals to ‘members of the family’ and how keeping domesticated animals became a status symbol. There’s a story from 1997 dubbed ‘The Great Pigeon Race Disaster’ following the The Royal Pigeon Associations annual cross-Channel race, where tens of thousands of pigeons went missing. Champion pigeon ‘Whitetail’ was amongst those missing, but returned to his Manchester home 5 years later. Homing pigeon nature, or human nurture, I found this story particularly relevant in the discussion of human/animal relationship. Even the pigeon, considered pest or vermin to most, adopts a domesticated, human-like bond.
I understand that you are looking at residencies and experimentation and that’s something I respect. Can you tell me more about the ways you want to develop your practice?
I’m really excited to see where the new series of pigeon paintings will take me. I’m learning so much from working on a smaller scale with regards to application of paint. I’ll continue to develop playing with the way I describe imagery through paint.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d love to spend more time in other countries, and continue applying for residencies. I often find studio time lonely, but spending time in Dusseldorf over the summer on Artpiq‘s Summerhouse residency with five other artists kept me questioning my practice with the help of their crit and company. I plan to apply for a masters in the next few years, once I feel my body of work is again ready to be dramatically changed, unraveled, and put back together.
Words by Martin Mayorga