Far Flung is painter Milli Jannides’ most recent exhibition and her first presentation at Coastal Signs. Here, Emil Scheffmann speaks to Jannides about her practice and a journey that has led to these paintings.
Emil Scheffmann: To begin our conversation, I would like to travel back to The Occupant (2012), the first painting of yours I fell for. This work—as with all your paintings—lingers for me. How do you look back to this painting, and at the practice it represents?
Milli Jannides: [Writing in a cafe next to the metro station, about to get on the train to studio] I made this painting in London. I really remember the process of making it, there was a simple picture of a room and then aspects of it kept changing, I felt like I nearly overdid it (even though it looks very provisional) and the bedspread and view out the window were the finishing touches. I just reread the quote I was working with (I have my studio notebook in my bag, I don’t usually); it was from The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning, a book I remember very little about now, except that the main character was a young woman living in London, renting a pokey room, but making it nice with a print of Rousseau’s ‘Snake Charmer.’ That was how I was working then, with texts that were somehow in sync with my day-to-day life, thoughts, feelings.
Looking back I see a desire to paint a mood rather than a real room. I see someone who would prefer to finish a painting rather than start afresh. A painter who wanted the eye to enter the painting rather than slide across it. Someone who was into novels and valued a scruffy aesthetic.
As an introduction to Far Flung, Coastal Signs has published a photograph of your studio in Stockholm. Such places are sites of intense curiosity for someone looking-in on a painting practice. Could you share some important objects or arrangements we might in yours?
The studio I’m renting now is a sublet. When Victor (my partner, a photographer) came to photograph he planned on capturing some of the elements you find subletting: furniture you are allowed to use, furniture you can’t, notes on the wall in another’s handwriting...but in the end he went in another direction. This photograph really presents the best aspects of this studio: light, space and a sort of romantic painterly atmosphere. The photograph seems to lay things bare, but a lot is occluded. The canvasses for Far Flung are stretched, but you don’t see any paintings. The chair hides my table which is usually covered in a plethora of sketches, postcards, glue, ink, brushes, food, shells, coffee cups and books. The painting table becomes neat and tidy from a distance. You can just glimpse a stack of notebooks in a desk, the roller door half down. When I look at it I feel like a painter in someone else’s dream. I like it. It is very much Victor’s photograph.
The studio is one of three that were built in the 1950s to be art studios, hence the high ceilings and big windows. It smells like wood and has a little light outside for me to turn on when I’m ‘in’; since I am a bit of a recluse when it comes to working, but also would like to feel part of the world, I turn it on reluctantly.
You and your family recently moved to Stockholm from Porto. I am curious about the meaning of relocation for a painter, how changes in light, contexts and influences might become evident on canvas. Has this been the case for you, and is there a Scandinavian presence in these paintings?
Not consciously, but colours for sure change. In this show the icy cold colours, muted tones and the greens feel directly connected to Stockholm.
Moving has meant starting over again, so there are new people I’m meeting but also I make more effort to connect with old friends to balance the feeling of estrangement. Similarly in the paintings there are new influences, but I also find I am more able to access or work with ideas I had in the past, like the mother and child figure from a drawing I made in Porto—now I have physical distance it becomes usable material.
One specific scandi influence is Swedish painter and sculptor Olle Nyman. I picked up a book in a secondhand store because I liked the cover and later found out his studio is preserved for visitors. Victor’s mother lives nearby so we went there for lunch, but we got the dates wrong and the studio was closed. I escaped the family dynamic for a brief moment and stood on a wall to peer in the window, which was a beautiful experience. We went back and I remembered what I like about these kinds of places: the artifice and intimacy. Even though it seems to present a picture of how the artist worked, you get the impression it never looked like that; and as opposed to a formal museum experience, in the studio there are a lot of paintings, drawings and small sculptures faux casually laying around, you could definitely touch them if you wanted.
There’s a willingness in Far Flung, and previous exhibitions, to summon images of latent meaning. I am thinking of the presence of crossroads, moon-like forms, and even a mother and child. Where does this impulse to allegorise emerge within your process?
Tricky question, someone else might be better at answering this one (any takers?)…I suppose allegory relates to transformation...one thing turning into another and transformation...well, there’s the magic huh?
But in terms of process I would say the impulse is there from the beginning, but maybe not with an intention to allegorise. My process is very self-directed and while that gives me a lot of liberty in the studio, it can also lead to moments of despair. However, some of the most enjoyable moments I have when working are when I am trying to paint something that, for me, for some reason, feels impossible, in that maybe it is overdone, romantic, naff, extreme, too much somehow. Can I paint an hourglass? A bunch of red hearts? When, what I might actually want to paint is a feeling of rage, discomfort, confusion, desire. If a writer I am reading uses the image of a crossroad to represent indecision, can I use it too? Is this too basic? This challenge is one I give myself and I enjoy it when it works out. I guess the imagery you mention is for my pleasure, but maybe it is also what some viewers will connect with because of the allegorical nature, or because in these images there are familiar components of human experience.
In your 2018 exhibition Cavewomen at Hopkinson Mossman, you featured a painting of storks titled International Gothic (2018). I later learnt that the painting closely coincided with the birth of your first child. How has the experience of motherhood informed your painting?
In many ways, I suspect; my experience of motherhood is constantly changing.
I feel very aware of being both myself and a mother and that sometimes these roles align, other times not. This double self is interesting for me in terms of the kind of introspection I have in my work anyway.
I think about my own childhood more and naturally my own mum, Peta Rutter, who died when I was twenty-four. She was an actress who also wrote and directed. In her work she explored the inner child, womanhood, dreams and the relationships between people, always with a sharp black humour. She was a great influence and I miss her immensely. These feelings inform the painting.
So I think more about the past, but I also am kept very in the present. There is so much that can happen in a day! On a practical note: now that I have less studio time, I find I have less hesitation when I start a painting, which is a great relief.
From the perspective of an audience in Aotearoa, Far Flung has the presence of a local art history—Francis Hodgkins in Nothing Toulouse (2021), and perhaps even McCahon’s spiritual earth-tones in Poem Pieces (2021). Do these or other figures from Aotearoa remain resonant for you working in Europe?
Whether it is from one or two shared circumstances (growing up in Aotearoa, looking at a lot of European painting) or because I was exposed to their work when I was young—though I can’t remember specifically studying Frances Hodgkins—things seen in formative years always stay with you and resonate, for sure.
I have a hard time listing artist references and more recently I am coming to think this is not some failure on my part. For a while I couldn’t work out if I was just not trying very hard, or if I needed to work with a precious naivety. But I notice I don’t even do it with other people’s work, I have seen a lot of art, but tracing affinities, a lineage or useful reference points...it’s just not how my brain works. I am very happy for others to see correlations, of course they are there; there is a visual repertoire that the type of painting I do relates to.
If I think about my work’s primary audience I think of Aotearoa, even living away, so it is nice to hear that you see connections to a local art history.
Far Flung has an accompanying publication, edited by you. At the end of the writings, I felt you had produced an intimate form of discourse, one composed of writers who represent a community around your practice. Could you respond to this publishing gesture, and perhaps expand on how writing exists in your practice more broadly?
It was nice and simple that publication. I knew I wanted to make a book and that I wanted it to be read, but didn’t necessarily feel it needed to be my own voice. I also didn’t think it needed to be about my work, as such. I originally thought I’d ask seven writers to match the seven paintings, but that was a bit overcooked. Turns out five writers + one photographer + me makes seven anyway.
It really helped that I knew the writers personally, it made it easier for me to ask them while I was still making the paintings, without feeling too inhibited. Inhibition is the nemesis to painting. It also made it ok for me to give them a very open-ended brief, which can be a challenge in itself, but they all accepted and dived in and it meant I really had very little to do to put it together. Ellyse Randrup helped with the design and Moa Franzén helped me print it while Victor and Moa’s partner Magnus looked after the kids one weekend.
Samuel Te Kani recently wrote in METRO about Coastal Signs’ model of profit sharing and co-authoring a charter with represented artists. These are interesting innovations for the commercial gallery model. Could you share your observations of the first year?
I’m excited about Coastal Signs and the possibilities of a dealer gallery model in which artists are shareholders. It is a slight shift but one that might make a wave. The pace so far has been slow, but in a good way, there are many more decisions to make and it will be interesting to see how 2022 plays out. I am totally excited about some of the things coming up in the programme.
I value that I am getting a bit of a clearer picture of how the business side of things works and at the same time being reminded that no two of us have the same experience and what one artist needs from a dealer gallery might be very different from another. I seem to need so much time alone/headspace to make the work I make, but maybe it is having a child, maybe the pandemic or the zeitgeist, but it seems quite important to find the time to think about how other people work, what they need, and how space could be designed to accommodate and support a broader range of artistic methodologies.
Personally, it is uncomfortable at times, the late-night zooms in the kitchen, learning to be professional among friends, voicing opinions. I’ve just been reading about Madeline Gins and her partner Shusaku Arakawa, who envisioned an ‘Architecture against death,’ spaces that aimed at staving off death by challenging, surprising and generally making life difficult for the inhabitant. I’m on board with the idea that being a bit uncomfortable, a bit more aware of your surroundings, is life giving.