Featured in issue No. 44 2012
GARY McMILLAN prefers to be on the outside looking in. He talks to MELODY THOMAS about loneliness and how he works to provide only a glimpse of the full story.
Gary’s portrait, photo: Howard Romero.
AS a boy growing up in Huntly, artist Gary McMillan didn’t really fit in.
“I was quite lonely. I didn’t have a lot in common with most people…. I’ve always had this feeling of unease, especially around people,” he says.
Nowadays, through his paintings, McMillan works to instil a similar sense of unease in his viewers. His eerily realistic paintings depict empty rooms and abandoned motorways, the tops of lamp posts and clouded skies. The things you or I crop from a photograph, McMillan brings to the foreground.
“I don’t like being the centre of attention. I prefer to stand on the side and observe, and I guess that comes out in my paintings.
I’m always dealing with peripheral images… everyday spaces that people walk by and don’t take any notice of,” he says.
Familiar places, made strange by the absence of people.
“I’m really into getting that sense of airiness in the work. With figures it’s easy; you just have people looking away from the viewer, out of the scene, out towards the edge of the canvas. It’s more subtle with landscapes,” he says.
Thinking like a cinematographer, McMillan leaves clues in his composition to hint at a bigger story left unseen.
“I’ll paint a long corridor and put it on a slight tilt, or look into an empty room, but have the door frame in the foreground so it becomes voyeuristic, the viewer as a participant in the scene. For a lot of my outside shots, I have my camera tilted up away from the action. I want to suggest movement, that sense that there’s something happening behind the frame.”
Number 18, acrylic on board, 305 x 407mm, 2008, from Invasion series.
When figures are present they appear startled or frightened, looking out over the shoulder of the viewer as they recoil, or up at the sky as they run.
“Someone’s out to get them, that’s for sure,” says McMillan.
But exactly what is causing all this drama is left up to the viewer.
“It might be the boogie man, it might be something else.
With this [realist] style of painting, a lot of people give away too much information, and I want to keep that sense of mystery.”
McMillan holds a Master of Fine Arts with distinction, from the Otago School of Art – a school he chose for its three years of compulsory life drawing classes.
“I always wanted to be a painter and… [to a painter] life drawing is like a pianist doing scales. I sat in on as many classes as I could, sometimes four three-hour classes a week.”
The “donkey work” shows in McMillan’s photo-realistic figures, but there are other reasons why he chooses to keep them lifelike, instead of twisting them in his search to create unease.
“As part of my masters I studied the idea of the uncanny. Freud wrote an essay describing the uncanny as something really close to reality but slightly shifted. If I distorted something too much it would become fantastical, and I don’t want to go that far. I want it to be more subtle than that.”
Scene 8, acrylic on linen, 710 x 1065mm, 2011, private collection.
McMillan’s work is heavily influenced by film – he refers to his paintings as “scenes from an imaginary film”, and his style as ‘cinematic painting’. His work bears titles like Invasion Series and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Aside from himself, the only person McMillan paints is his wife and fellow artist Ruth Cleland – and he refers to the process as like, “a filmmaker casting for a movie”.
A portrait of Cleland, recoiling in fright or surprise and entitled Number 18, is currently part of the travelling Adam Portrait exhibition.
“I found an old movie book of casting shots of the great actors from 1950s Sci-Fi films. I’d been looking at all these B-grade actors looking in horror at the camera and I did my version of it,“ he says.
At times, this process was trying for both of them.
“I’d get her to scream and look around and look surprised, then I’d choose the best ones to paint from. We argued a little bit, me being the director as well as a perfectionist.”
McMillan’s perfectionism means a single piece can take months, even a year, to complete, and he clearly enjoys the irony of months spent rendering a scene that represents just a glimpse of the full story.
High Street, acrylic on linen, 555 x 710mm, 2005, private collection.
“I’m influenced by Franz Kafka. He writes a lot of detail, but when you try to analyse what he’s writing about it leaves a lot of questions. Even though the work’s very detailed it’s still an enigma, as if the more exact he makes things the more questionable they become,” he says.
Five years ago, McMillan moved from Otago to Auckland and promptly went into hiding.
“I needed time and space to get my head around being in a new place, and I’ve got to be one hundred percent happy with things before I show them,” he says.
And it seems that finally, he is - McMillan has two exhibitions opening in Auckland in May.
“Noise” opens at FHE Project on May 9, and “The Quiet Earth”, referencing the 1985 Geoff Murphy film of the same name, opens at the Film Archive on May 3.
“When I’m building an image I’m conscious that I’ve got the whole history of painting, film and photography to fall back on and I view that as liberating. I’m constantly re-evaluating and searching.”
And because he’s used to looking in places no one else does, McMillan isn’t likely to run out of creative fodder anytime soon.