Lisa Milroy

Japan

Text for Voyage, Salon du Dessin Contemporair
Carusel du Louvre, 2010
(Galerie Xippas, Paris)

Growing up in Vancouver in the 1960s, one of the rented houses that my family lived in had a landscaped Japanese garden instead of a conventional backyard. I was about seven at the time. The house itself was a modern bungalow sprawling out on one level with a gorgeous panoramic view from the living room window of the inlet and north shore mountains. The Japanese garden had a winding path and several stone temples that slipped in and out of sight depending on where I stood and looked. But the fishpond stole the show. As carp slowly glided through the green-black water, waterspiders skittered over the surface, sending out concentric circles to ripple the otherwise perfectly still reflection of trees and sky. During this period, my father worked as executive director of a grain export company and from his Japanese clients, he received a number of wonderful gifts, all exquisitely crafted calendars. One calendar took the form of a small wooden horse with a paper calendar slung as cargo across the saddle. Another was a doll with a ball for a head and wooden cylinder for a body, this wrapped in twelve sheets of crepe paper as a kimono-calendar. At the end of each month, I'd careful tear away the top kimono-calendar to reveal the new one underneath, wondering all the while what she!d be like naked. When I finally slid the last paper tube from her body at the close of the year, I found the wooden cylinder painted in swirls of flowers, tatoo-like. Soon enough, I took them for the doll!s latest outfit.

In my teens, I discovered Vancouver's beautiful Japanese garden situated in the woods on the University of British Columbia campus. Hours dissolved unnoticed as I mooned about the Nitobe Garden, trying to drown a welter of tumultuous adolescent feelings in its quiet beauty.

In London, in painting my still life paintings during the 1980!s, Japanese prints were among the objects I most loved to depict. The intimacy of the scenes, the focus on ordinary day- to-day life - a woman fixing her hair, a girl stopping to tie her shoe, two women pausing in the street for a gossip - appealed to me emotionally while pictorially, I relished the colour, pattern, composition, and marvelous use of line.

However familiar I thought certain aspects of the Japanese prints, however exquisite I found the Japanese calendars of my childhood, or beautiful the gardens in Vancouver, these Japanese experiences also had about them something strange and mysterious. At whatever age, they pointed me to an unknown, inaccessible world, testing what I knew against what I couldn!t know, and thoroughly excited my curiosity.

My first visit to Japan took place in autumn, 1989, thanks to the British Council and an invitation to the opening of a British art show in Fukuoka which included some of my paintings. After that first visit to Japan, I was hooked. Never had I been to a more visually compelling, engaging and stimulating place! Japan was in my blood. But however much I was captivated by Japan, drawn into the place by all that I saw, I felt equally shut out and cut off, not knowing the language or social customs, and by the sheer foreign-ness. What a seductive combination, this push/pull effect of extreme attraction and alienation.

This quality of connection and disconnection is one of the grand preoccupations of my work as a painter, and in Japan, the dynamic is activated to an extreme. For me, it makes Japan, or the idea of Japan an important artistic catalyst. In addition to Japanese prints, other Japanese motifs in my work include ceramics, architecture and street scenes, and people. Stemming from my paintings of prints, I also invented and painted a troupe of geishas which act as my alter-ego.

I have now been to Japan on thirteen occasions, for residencies, exhibitions and holidays. My last visit was Spring, 2009 when I went to Kyoto to view the cherry trees in bloom.

My favorite film maker is Yasujiro Ozu, and one of my favorite novelists is Haruki Murakami. My favorite scent is by Issey Miyake, and I love Japanese cuisine. Utamaro is among my favorite artists. I am hooked on Japan for many reasons that I can explain but, after all that!s said, at heart, the fascination remains a mystery.

 

Lisa Milroy

London, 
March 2010