Lightness Grounded: the art of Jennifer Keeler-Milne


‘Philosophers step back and look at the big picture.’

‘This is not what Mama does.’

‘No,’ Papa agreed.

‘She says the tiniest brush stroke matters.’

‘But sometimes, my girl, when you look in such detail, you lose the big picture.’

‘What is the big picture, Papa?’

‘Truth, the absolute truth…” 1.

And it is in Jennifer Keeler-Milne’s intimate, minute scaled oil paintings of objects and expansive, charcoal drawings of the heavens that she works most effectively in her search for a visual language, a truth uncovering what she seeks to say. As scale shifts from vast and open, to inclusive and covetous, tone on her surfaces pulses and breathes, transposing the artist’s response to the beauty of the landscape.

Keeler-Milne, a Sydney based artist, has spent significant time looking at art. Upon graduating she commenced teaching then became an art educator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She then pushed to the next stage of her practice embracing the position of artist full time. Keeler-Milne eschewed the drift to photography and video as the primary means of expression adopted by many artists in the nineties, instead consolidating skills in drawing and painting while working on the visual purpose of evolving a language of description and narrative. As such her practice possesses an intrinsic integrity.

In 1999 Keeler-Milne spent time in Paris looking at painting techniques favoured by Northern hemisphere artists, artists capturing the effects of light and atmosphere in their works then followed further residencies overseas culminating in solo shows such as ‘Conversations with Clouds’ 2001, and invitation in important award exhibitions such as the Fleurieu Peninsula Art Prize and the Kedumba Drawing Prize. She notes, “Very large drawings were also made and inclusion, over this time, of eight works in the Dobell exhibitions, was important to my practice. It helped me discover my relationship to scale, something that has taken years to refine.”

Keeler-Milne’s solo exhibition ‘Lumiere’ 2012, her eighth at Tim Olsen Gallery, held alongside inclusion in ‘Fowlers Gap: 13 artists paint the desert’ and ‘Not the Way Home: 13 artists paint the desert’ further reveal fine examples of the artist’s abilities in handling extremes of subject and scale - the mesmeric night light in a desert sky, atmospheric lights of Parisian interiors or the blinding urban static of Tokyo or Bejing streets.

‘Lumiere’ scrutinized the luminescence of artificial light, using glazing and scumbling to create optical, tonal effects. Here dappled shades of layered colour shifted and moved, at times creating the line of a figure though never as a single contour thus cleverly producing the inflexions, the pitch of the specific locale. The figure proffered a subliminal sense of something more in the narrative. Keeler-Milne’s interrogation of figurative imagery and abstraction evolved a language of pictorial ambiguity, lured viewers into sustained contemplative looking. ‘Lumiere’ too recalled the paintings of Seurat, the way his surfaces rendered sensations and depths in weighted distributions of light and dark dots further entering the province of representation and non representation. 

Faced with working in the desert environment, Keeler-Milne took on its physical and conceptual challenges. “I tried to consider how a contemporary female artist of anglo-celtic heritage might respond to the landscape. Historically the forging of a national identity cherished certain myths and did not seriously consider women working as artists in this environment.”

Keeler-Milne chose to create a body of intimate scaled works on paper, ‘Desert Plants,’ and one massive drawing nearing two and a half metres in width, Desert Sky, completed while back in the studio. The panoramic scroll of fog-like sky worked as a grand seduction to enter the void. Deftly manipulating the sparest of materials - charcoal and paper - the artist animated tonal and textural sensitivities to mesmeric effect. Monochromatic surfaces alluded to drifting into transitory moments recalling John Berger’s thoughts that, “All appearances are of the nature of clouds, they gather visibility, then disperse into invisibility.”2 But as Keeler-Milne observed, details can be almost elusive yet contain the universal and she is concerned to see the subtle forming and slipping away of details in order to engage with the more discursive questions in her art.

This may manifest in grappling obsessively with the atmospheric complexities of a vast streetscape or teasing out a shard of light reflected in a chandelier. But while Keeler-Milne’s work lives and breathes in modest and extravagant ways, as prosaically metaphored in ‘The Vanishing Act’, her practice is grounded and carried by a lightness of touch, augering well for viewers awaiting more…

‘”Expect surprises,” my old ringmaster used to say, “it will keep you on your toes.’”3

Jakobsen, Mette The Vanishing Act, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2011, p.10

Ibid., p.164

John Berger, The Sense of Sight, Pantheon, New York, p.219

Courtney Kidd