The soft humour and definitive emphatic detail of mundane scenes in the work of Milly Peck are hypnotizing. Playing with the motifs of gestural elements, historical peculiarity and every day ‘life’ of specific exhibition locations, Milly creates stage-like interior installations comprised of an ensemble of two and three-dimensional paintings and sculptures which emphasize the outstanding characteristics of each space. Every piece within the installation is coexisting with the others in a building/room/location in a very distinct link, correlating each other’s role within the nature of the given interior. Her sophisticated portrayal of such spaces creates a strangely familiar yet illusory feel of the surrounding environment in which you stand.
Having earned her MA at the Royal College of Art, London and BFA at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford University, Milly has been successfully showing work across the UK and Europe including her recent solo exhibitions at Assembly Point and Tintype Gallery. Her most recent project is a stand-alone installation for Jerwood Space SURVEY show, which is a travelling exhibition across the UK.
Located in the south-west district of London, Milly’s studio is compact and equipped with the necessary tools and machines which allow her to produce large scale three dimensional pieces as well as flat images. We speak to the artist over a cup of morning coffee about her life as an independent artist after graduation, her developing practice, current projects and the way she sees her work looking in the future.
AMM: Hi Milly! We’ve been drawn to your work because you use a variety of mediums, working with sculpture, painting and installation portraying playfully the mundane scenes of everyday life with an injection of quirky gestural elements, in a three-dimensional display. Tell us more about how your work developed in its current form.
MP: I’ve always made work that straddles the two and three-dimensional, working between printmaking and collage in the past, drawing, sculpture, painting and installation. Flat image attempting to mimic properties of three-dimensionality and conversely, sculptures being rendered graphically in cartoonish forms and simplified matt colours. I have previously drawn influence from commercial window displays, advertising, logos and the various processes of ‘flattening’ which occur in these modes of communication. I’ve always been interested in the proliferation of the reproduced image through these means and particularly, the imitation and manipulation of natural forms within these. My work now consists for the most part of routed works which are both pictorial and three-dimensional to an extent, by nature of the process. Working freehand with this machine consistently as a tool for drawing, images undergo a process of simplification – butting up against the practical limits of the tool itself and my ability to handle it. In this way, I think that this practical process of making becomes a way to unpick how we attempt to understand reality through representations. Someone wrote to me recently in relation to this and said “a window is not a only a window, but also a compilation of all the windows we have ever seen” which I think maybe explains what I mean better than I can articulate!
AMM: How does exploring the area between the flat image and the three-dimensional object influence your practice?
MP: I think I’m most interested in how flatness can exist in a sculptural context. I remember reading something an artist had written about how sculpture is somehow unsettling for its inability to reveal all its facets at the same time. You can’t optically experience a sculpture at once because there is always a reverse you can not see. It historically requires you to rotate around it. I’m interested in the notion of a front and a reverse of an image. In much of my work, I’ve tried to draw attention to these vantage points, changing the lighting or revealing the construction of the work to signify a front and back. Similarly, in more wall based works, I have played with depictions of drop shadows and shadow puppetry. They often have cut out voids which create their own real drop shadows. The routing technique I employ also has this strange quality of being a graphic form of line drawing but also a physical interruption to the surface of the work. There becomes an interplay between the representation of depth and depth itself. I don’t think these works are painting or sculptures but are very much in a middle ground. I often think about this medical condition called stereoblindness where some people are unable to perceive stereoscopic depth meaning that they visually see the world as a flattened image. There is speculation that Rembrandt had a form of stereoblindness and that this may have been advantageous in his ability to accurately portray things as he was perhaps already seeing things in image form rather than a three-dimensional rendering created through our usual stereoscopic vision.
AMM: How do you begin to create a single piece and how does an installation evolve?
MP: I quite rarely think about works being singular autonomous pieces. I usually think about them in bodies or groups and their positioning and installation is often codependent. Motifs will reappear at times such as windows or chequered floor tiles. I often make works which are in dialogue with particular spaces both in their imagery and in their installation.
AMM: From your last solo show ‘Pressure Head’ at Assembly Point in London you made work in direct response to the gallery space, extending your composition directly from existing architectural features within the building. This is fascinating; can you tell us more about your work on this particular show?
MP: The gallery space at Assembly Point is interesting. I think it was once a Methodist church so it intrinsically has this frontward facing emphasis on entering. Metal columns lead towards the back wall with a sort of central aisle. It’s very stage-like. Though the space has obviously been altered since, it still has these old, iron Victorian radiators and I used these as a physical starting point to the show. I made a fictional, faulty plumbing system which crept across the gallery in a diagrammatic arrangement. All the works in the show loosely related to water in domestic or everyday settings – a blocked shower drain, a stagnant pond, a drive through carwash. Isolated hands carrying out everyday tasks in these scenes becoming unwitting performers. It was important that the rudimentary construction of the plumbing system was left visible, works becoming stage flats on a theatre set. I was lucky to have quite a generous install period for my show which meant that I could work in the space, building and designing the fake piping system on site, adjusting and changing it as it grew. I think there’s only so much that models or drawings can do before seeing something emerging in real space in relation to your own body. The install changed from my original drawings quite a lot. I’m interested in the idea of the works existing as three-dimensional collages and creating vantage points where different parts of works frame or dissect one another teasing our sense of depth perception. The piping system which ran through the gallery acted as a linear drawing in itself which could probably have taken a number of different configurations but I think this sense of mutability and adaption is crucial to the work -that it’s something more akin to a set in mid turnaround between scenes containing some sort of latent, performative potential.
AMM: How long does it take to prepare/create an installation like this? What are the main aspects you had to consider whilst planning it?
MP: I usually always start with drawing. First, quite playful quick sketches and then later slightly more thorough scaled drawings. I also often make clumsy digital collages on Photoshop. But these are really just a starting point. I’m pretty un-technological, I think in part because I’ve never really been particularly drawn to systems which aid or remove the potential for error carried by the hand. It’s a strange stubbornness that translates into my freehand use of a router as a tool for drawing. I try to do everything on my own when making and installing my work. I think that in a way, having this vague limitation creates a sort of measurable pace to the work and gives me a feeling of control. It ends up often having quite a direct relationship to the physical limits of my own body; the reach of my arms, my height and what I can counterbalance or carry. Maybe this will change at some point depending on the project. When I need metalwork, I work closely with a blacksmith whose forge is local to where I live. We’ve worked together to make framing structures for different projects. It’s quite a unique situation so the process is organic and flexible. It seems that small scale industries like this are becoming much harder to sustain because of rent increases and so on. The industrial estate he works on will be sold for property development soon so I really value this relationship whilst it lasts.
AMM: You’ve used a similar approach in the group show at Three Works last year creating an install titled ‘Plain Run’. Through this work you’ve highlighted the history of the exhibiting gallery space, which used to be a pharmacy, a newsagent and more recently a car parts centre. What makes you focus your work on the theme of the history of the building where you exhibit?
MP: I guess it’s a way of paying homage to the places that we pass through and inhabit. So much of how we interact with the world has become digitalised, virtual and invisible, especially within the art sphere where many physical gallery spaces have had to close in recent years. I am also interested in design and architecture more broadly as well so inevitably this feeds in. Chris Shaw who runs Three Works in Scarborough was really keen for the works to be site-specific. He’d restored the space beautifully, maintaining some original features very sensitively so I wanted to echo this in that work. I think of it often as this strange sort of fictional agreement with the building, a kind of respect being paid for its hospitality and the work being a record of a particular point in time – a place marker of sorts. The space is memorialised by traces of it existing in the work beyond the show. I spent some time at Assembly Point helping Jemma Egan install her show in 2017 prior to my own. For some reason, maybe to do with the particular weather at the time, there were loads of blue bottle flies everywhere. In one of my works for the show (which is a direct copy of a section of the windows at Assembly Point), I incorporated these flies onto the window sill as a sort of antiheroic relic of this particular space and atmosphere.
AMM: Most of your work is large scale; is scale important?
MP: In the last few years, everything in my work has been relative to human scale which creates another sort of limitation in terms of the objects/scenes I choose to depict. What objects can fit on the picture plane and where must a work hang so that a hand drops at the waist of the viewer. In this way, the set-like potential of the work is important and the human scale enables individual works to become backdrops or stage flats, pulling the viewer into a flattened world where a fictional narrative has the potential to develop.
AMM: Your visionary approach has simplistic, cartoonish and graphic qualities – you mostly use black and white tones adding colour quite rarely, giving preference to linear compositions – can you tell us more about the ideas behind this?
MP: I tend to apply a consistent register of hand-drawn, routed lines and a limited colour palette of matt paint to every surface in order to flatten everything into a similarly pictorial, cartoonish state. Using routing as a tool to draw, the lines cut into the wood have a physical depth to them which for me, tries to deal specifically with this tussle between the two and three-dimensional by being both lines depicting an image and physical interruptions to the object’s surface. I also mostly use trade emulsion paint which has a limited variety of premixed colours but these limitations are quite freeing. In the same way that much of my work is rectilinear, it creates this pre-set boundary or format which means the imagery has to respond and yield directly to these perimeters. Using a limited colour palette also allows more continuity, different works optically collapsing into one another, existing together across a common ground. The works become like instructional diagrams or image cells from a comic strip.
AMM: Does humour play a big role in your work?
MP: Humour is really important – and is at its best when it sits really uncomfortably and unexpectedly close to horror, boredom or tragedy. My work broadly researches ideas surrounding imitation, fakery, reconstructed environments and the potential comedy found in clumsy discrepancies between the artificial and the real. Some of the imagery within my recent work nods towards the slapstick-banana peels, familiar objects or scenes which hint at potential moments of embarrassment or slip-ups where we find ourselves at our most human and most vulnerable. Humour has the ability to become a vehicle or access point for something more quietly critical to arise about the way in which we collectively and individually deal with a lifestyle of relentless image ingestion and production, mostly through digital technologies and advertising, and how this affects our visual and physical handling of real, tangible things in the world.
AMM: How autobiographical is your work?
MP: There are sometimes elements within my work which are extracted from my daily life – objects or places I have encountered. But I’m not particularly interested in my work being personally allegorical or narrative. I sometimes use my own hands as a model for initiating drawings within the works but I also use a combination of stock images from the internet – I like the anonymity of the images and that this anonymity means that anyone can stand in for these ‘characters’ – they are ungendered and unclassified. I would hope that through drawing attention to mundane activities embedded in the everyday, the work can prompt a re-evaluation and reassessment of our relationship with the things we encounter outside of a virtual sphere.
AMM: Last October at ‘SURVEY’ in Jerwood Space you created a free standing ‘stage’ composition, which is shown alongside other works, not to mention that this year the whole exhibition is touring around the UK. Tell us more about this venture and how do you find showing work alongside other artists?
MP: SURVEY has been a really great experience. It came rather serendipitously quite shortly after I had received a Jerwood Visual Arts Artist Bursary to initiate some research into Foley sound production. Foley is the re-creation of everyday sound effects in post-production for film, television, radio, gaming and other media. So naturally, this seemed an apt time to develop this research and make work as a result for the show. We were all nominated by a national selection of mid-career artists and then we submitted proposals and were chosen from a shortlist. As it is quite a big group show with fifteen of us in total, it was a challenge to make something which I knew needed to be self contained to an extent, especially for the tour. The reinterpretation of a section of a Foley stage seemed like a good physical resolution accompanied by an audio piece which I recorded with DIY Foley sounds made by myself in a very rudimentary, experimental way. Some of the participating artists I knew personally before and some I did not but the show (and the tour) has been such a great experience to spend time with these artists, learning about their diverse practices and being able to show the work together in cities that I haven’t had much of an opportunity to explore properly before.
AMM: In terms of selling your own work and making a living as an established artist in future: how do you see galleries or yourself selling your installations or parts of it, taking into account the very sensitive process of creating each element coexisting in direct link to others in each show?
MP: I find this idea of thinking about works in a ‘sellable’ capacity really difficult as it’s something which is never really at the forefront of my mind when I’m making work. As I have often built parts of installations on site in response to the space, I guess the work sometimes has an inherently and stubbornly temporary quality. Similarly, often when I make some wall based works in series which are made together or linked thematically with the intention of being viewed in relation to one another, I’m not particularly preoccupied with how they might function independently beyond this context. I suspect that if I started thinking too much about challenging or changing that, the focus would shift and you’d notice it in the work. But obviously, it’s great if the work can function and be seen in new ways so I’m not averse to it! In terms of making a living solely from my work, I think it’s quite an unrealistic prospect. I don’t think I know too many artists who can do this without subsidising themselves with other forms of income, certainly in London. I think it’s good and healthy to have other types of work outside of your own practice. Most of my jobs have been or are related to art in some way, either through teaching, technical assistance or working for other more established artists all of which I’ve learnt a lot from.
AMM: You did an MA at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 2016. How did this course help shape your work? Were there any particular highs and lows?
MP: I think that most people would unanimously say that a Masters, wherever you choose to study, goes alarmingly fast. And this pace means that it forces your work to evolve perhaps more quickly than it would outside of an institution (not necessarily for the better or for everyone). I think the best thing for me about the Sculpture course was meeting my peer group. As well as the technical support provided from the workshops. Inevitably art schools are becoming increasingly overfilled, overworked and overcapitalised and it feels like it often falls onto the resilience and resourcefulness of staff on the ground and students to bung the holes. One of my highlights at the RCA was receiving one of the Villiers David travel awards which enabled me to visit Japan for the first time in order (in part) to visit the area in Tokyo where they manufacture ‘sampuru’ which are plastic replicas of food dishes which are displayed in restaurant windows as visual representations of meals for customers. These are amazingly complex and often totally ridiculous, noodles suspended statically in midair from floating chopsticks.
AMM: How did you find practicing art after graduation? How easy was it to establish yourself as an independent artist in London?
MP: I was really lucky to receive the David Troostwyk/Matt’s Gallery Studio Award on completion of my degree show in 2016 which provided me with a free studio for a year, mentoring from Robin Klassnik (director of Matt’s Gallery) and Jordan Baseman (artist and the then head of Sculpture at RCA) and a show at Matt’s Gallery (Studio Space) at the end of the award. This was invaluable in giving me the financial flexibility to spend lots of time in the studio and provided me with an end goal of a show. This helped me to structure my time effectively in this ominous initial period of leaving the support structures of an institution and the social support structure of a peer group you are with every day.
AMM: What or whom are you inspired by? Anything or anyone in particular…?
MP: There are plenty of artists I admire and who have inspired me, including artists I’ve been taught by or who I have worked for. But for the most part, things I find inspiring are often quite dumb or ridiculous. I went to a dinosaur themed crazy golf course last year which was incredible. It had waterfalls which were dyed bright blue because regular water was not hyperreal enough. Beyond the miniature steaming volcano, a fake crocodile eating a man’s arm floats in the water around hole 5. Totally surreal and wonderful.
There are a couple of notable books too which have influenced me – probably ‘Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art’ by Scott McCloud and ‘The Foley Grail: The Art of Performing Sound for Film, Games, and Animation’ by Vanessa Theme Ament being my recent favourites and have helped me immensely with my work.
AMM: What does your day in the studio look like – is there a specific routine or ritual?
MP: I used to bring one of my dogs to the studio quite a lot which was great to have the company but I can’t so much anymore sadly. Having her pleading to go for a walk definitely made me more urgent in my daily planning and maybe more self aware of any procrastinating! I don’t really think of my studio now as a romanticised space for reading, research or contemplation for example – it’s really much more of a workshop. It’s not a very comfortable space as I often have to work on the floor when I’m routing or painting my work. I’m very messy and tend to pile things up on any free surfaces like chairs and tables. So I’m really there just for periods of practical making and most research or extraneous things are done elsewhere. I listen to a lot of repetitive music too!
AMM: What are you currently working on and where would you like to see your work go in the future?
MP: I’m currently thinking about developing more work around my research into Foley sound production, focussing more closely on the props used. Continuing my ideas around fakery and mimicry, I am also visiting a number of zoos, wax work and natural history museums in addition to amusement parks. I am interested in the ubiquitous use of dioramas and other imitative display devices within these artificial settings. Particularly, those that mimic scenes from the natural world and the points at which the ‘real’ world breaks through and interrupts these illusionary spaces to (sometimes unintentional) comic effect. My next project is an outdoor commission for Village Green Festival in Chalkwell Park, Essex. This is alongside three other artists and includes a week’s residency where we will familiarise ourselves with the site in order to make works which will be exhibited during the festival and over the summer. I’ve only made a few works for the outdoors before so I’m looking forward to the challenge.
AMM: Apart from art, is there anything you are really passionate about?
MP: I wouldn’t claim to have any special knowledge in it but zoology and natural history have always really interested me. It’s leaked into my work repeatedly at various points in the past. I’ve written previously about animal camouflage and its relationship to flatness. These instances of deception which already exist in nature in such diverse and complicated ways fascinate me and in turn, human attempts to replicate nature such as the beautiful Victorian sculptures of dinosaurs found in Crystal Palace Park in South London. In 1854 after the closure of the Great Exhibition, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, under the direction of Sir Richard Owen, a renowned palaeontologist of the Victorian era, created over thirty of these statues based on fossil specimens housed in the Natural History Museum and other significant collections. A lot of them, in the light of modern science, are anatomically incorrect adding another layer of intrigue (and comedy) to their history.
Find out more about the artist: www.millypeck.com
Interview by Maria Zemtsova for ArtMaze Magazine.