Into Black Light
“ To love someone is to isolate him from the world, wipe out every trace of him, dispossess him of his shadow, drag him into a murderous future. It is to circle around the other like a dead star and absorb him into a black light. Everything is gambled on an exorbitant demand for the exclusivity of a human being, it may be. This is doubtless what makes it a passion: its object is interiorized as an ideal end, and we know that the only ideal object is a dead one. "
- Jean Baudrillard
Holding silences pregnant with an unyielding force of motion, the works of Mia Vallance problematise the ‘emptiness’ in spaces we move through, and occupy. Her paintings hum with an acid light that builds to break through overlaying washes of translucent pigment, and radiate with the distinct, and visceral way she takes in the world. Decisive gestures of the body strike the canvas in sacramental offering, imbuing nebulous fumes with a stirring potential energy that threatens to crash forth. Identifiable features - if they are there - emerge from this dense atmosphere to obscure any further articulation of the space they inhabit. However, they do not float in the composition of negative space. There is a palpable sense of setting. We are left without orientation, in a dizzying terrain of raucous colour, where objects seem positioned only to be decomposed and eroded - there more to offer context, scale and visibility to eviscerating winds, or the sulphurous humidity of climate. Though more often than not we are given no foothold at all – “internal distance expanded and collapsed” – to float lost in a boundless volume of troubling weather. In this, her work represents a more terrestrial sense of Landscape painting, where stains contaminate and diffuse any notional boundaries between ourselves and the rest of nature.
Within the show, her most recent works hold an unresolvable proximity. The almost suffocating immediacy of her dense atmospheres, now join glimpses of exposed private moments and memories, as pungency of colour dissipates into sun bleached hues that, at times, completely fold into an unknowable depth of black. We are stifled by the nearness of things, yet so much is obscured, cut out, or left eternally out of reach. Head spliced from body, by the shot of the canvas, the furious movement of a hand blurs the explicit content of ‘Yellow room’ presenting a lone man mid-wank. And, divorced from the scene on a separate painting, titled ‘Body spill’, again the close up view, holds the viewer’s face between the legs of a naked figure. Her dilute form recedes into a background of damp shades as, back arched out of frame, she is left similarly faceless and detached from identity. The body is offered in violent prostration as polluting stains denature her rapture — a faded memory left to go stale. Elsewhere, stillness and motion compete to confuse distance and the orientation of perspective. An onset of staggered moments cut out structures with rapid marks while in other places, wide horizontal motions stretch scenes out into endlessness. Our sense of duration is dislocated from the familiar human-centred position we are used to, and offers the potential availability of ‘other’ points of view. In the undulating dialogue between each painting of the show is the suggestion of ulterior lived experience and our own fallibility. Here the work gives us room to confront latent tendencies within Western thought - those that “confuse existence with the domain of what is accessible via the senses and projects the human need for meaning onto the vastness of the galaxies.”
Words by Francesca Hussey
Francesca Hussey: There’s quite a vast shift in the feel of your painting compared to your previous work. Is there anything that marks a pivotal point in this change?
Mia Vallance: I think a level of darkness. Red moves the blood which was the first work produced in this show marked an important turning point. I began with a studio red from Kremer and was immediately faced with the problem of what could dominate its radiance - undiluted black which I used quite violently and directly. The title comes from Derek Jarman’s book Chroma.
“Red has always embraced the hospital. The tenth century physician Avicenna, dressed his patients in red clothes. Red wool tied about the neck protected. Like for like. Colour would cure. Red moved the blood. Avicenna made medicine from red flowers. If one gazed intently at red the blood would flow.”
I loved this idea. That looking at a colour could change the way things moved inside the body.
FH: Your work often leaves us without any of the usual indicators for three-dimensional space. But, despite this they articulate a clear depth and a sense of setting. How do you achieve this quality in your paintings?
MV:They don’t tend to occupy formal space. But I guess the depth comes from building up layers of translucent colour. Every mark and gesture I’ve made is generally visible - so it operates in multiple spaces and dimensions. Which is sort of how the mind works anyway, thoughts overlapping, physical and online experiences, hybrid identities… Painting is an unusual construction of time, as it reveals itself gradually. Guston talks about geological time, a slow erosion, the gradual moving of rocks - incredibly slow time to us. I also like the scientist James Lovelock’s theory of Gaia, which describes Earth as a dynamic self regulating system that cannot be described through linear modes of thinking. In doing so he encourages us to embrace unconscious thought and intuition. That’s a painting language.
FH: I’ve seen a lot of the sketches in your recent practice. What kind of dialogue do they have with this exhibition?
MV: I make large scale charcoal drawings - bodies, portraits and landscapes mostly. I like how transitional charcoal is: you can blow it away, smudge it across the page, create an impenetrable dark line, remove it and fix it with spray. Drawing is a useful exercise in seeing and remembering. I find it helpful to generate ideas.
FH: Is this something that starts a painting for you?
MV: Sometimes yes. I usually begin by mixing up the paint, thinking about the movement, maybe a couple of images and drawings on the floor. Tidying the studio up a thousand times. Picking out some brushes. Dancing around the canvas before making the initial marks, problems to solve.
FH: Your previous work takes a gaseous approach to landscape painting, one that is sensitive to qualities of lived experience that are often left unconsidered. With this exhibition you bring into these concerns, exposed bodies and sexual acts with a similar sense of consideration. How do these elements come together?
MV: A tutor once told me I float the dead thing in limbo. By taking something as living as sex, the transfer of fluids, an orgasm or breath, and painting it - freezing it in time with a deathly gaze, it becomes something else. It is suddenly not so erotic… I’ve painted the movement of bodies and spilling of liquid with a stillness and a flatness. As Baudrillard says, the “only ideal object is a dead one.”
FH: There is so much conversation going on between your works. Is there something that would describe this conversation? What would the collective noun of your paintings be? You know, like a murder of crows or a parliament of owls.
MV: A gyre of paintings - the rotating motion, ocean currents, Yeats Second Coming.
FH: You seem to have quite a confident, decisive approach to mark making. How do you approach risk and failure in your practice?
MV: The most enigmatic things happen in painting when you take risks. So I try to take them as much as possible. For me this means that failure in the studio happens all the time - I destroy about half of what I make. So although I am quite used to it, it never feels any easier and I still threaten to quit painting about once a week.
FH: There’s a lot of toxicity featured in your paintings. And, with the recurring reference to weather, and a thickness to the air, they often take me to my own breath. The polluting contaminants I take in. Is an environmental perspective something you actively engage with in your practice?
MV: Yes, but within this ecological discourse, my focus is on the collective anxiety we experience daily and globally. You could use the word “zeitgeist” , the unnerving zeitgeist of our times, the feeling of the end. Srecko Horvat, the Croatian philosopher describes the “apocalyptic zeitgeist” because somewhere the end of the world is already happening. It is a class question. I’m using these cadmium pigments and solvents all the time, it is a highly toxic medium. The air I’m breathing in is harmful. It goes down the sink when I wash my brushes. I do feel guilty about this.
FH: Is there anything that you feel is particular to painting at this specific point in history?
MV: It’s hard to say because there is so much painting being made right now, or perhaps it’s just more visibly accessible, but painting that avoids a kind of certainty, not only in the popular aesthetic choice of the blur or fade, but even the subject matter, the digital reference. By choosing to paint, you’re working against such a historical canon, and those references are really important. I realise more and more that I just need to spend lots of time in the National Gallery. It’s such a big history.
FH: Are there other artists that have had a particular impact on the show?
MV: I think possibly everything I see will have some kind of impact on the show. I think of myself as a machine in this sense, inputting and and outputting. But of course there are some significant experiences: this year I saw Tala Madani’s retrospective Biscuits at the Geffen in LA, and Francis Alys’ Children’s Games at MUAC in Mexico City. I discovered a painting by Harold Stevenson called The New Adam, a book of Bill Brandt photographs, and listened to Bloody Shadows from Afar by Lena Platonos.
FH: You gave us this excerpt from Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Fatal Strategies’ above – particularly charged words in the context of this exhibition. Is there anything else you can leave us with that has had a substantial effect on your recent practice?
“In the wave you become
Your naked ecstasy.”