In the Studio with Alice Miller

In the studio with Alice Miller, whose practice draws parallels between the idea of religion and the hedonism of the nighttime social scene, playing with archetypes of light and dark. We met with Alice to tell us more about growing up in Dorset, her greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I think when I finished my degree. My way of keeping myself sane after finishing university, in the middle of a national lockdown, was to focus entirely on making my work the best it could be. During art school the concept of your work gets pushed to the front, and your means of achieving it is just a vehicle. Making work independent of academia was very affirming for me. I handed in my final project in June, and by September I had a new body of work which I felt confident about, but which also felt like the beginning of something I wanted to continue improving and refining. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I’m from Dorset, on the south coast of England. I’m fortunate that I’ve always been supported with my work, and this has definitely given me the confidence to pursue art as a career. But despite my love for the seascapes I was surrounded by growing up, I’ve never wanted to make work about scenery. If I’d have grown up in London I’d have probably been a landscape painter! 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

I know I enjoyed drawing and painting as a child – the kitchen wall was always covered in artworks – but I don’t think it was until about halfway through secondary school that I considered, or even knew the possibility of, pursuing art as a career. At school I used painting as a means to an end – it was something I knew I could do to get marks – and after A-Levels, I came to university intending to explore photography and ceramics. Painting was still part of my practice though, and one day in the studio, my friend was watching me work and said ‘you’re a painter aren’t you’. I’m not sure why, but hearing myself being described as a ‘painter’ instead of an artist kickstarted a change in my practice. He also told me I should try oil. I was working in acrylic at the time, having tried oil briefly in the past and disliked it. The switch wasn’t instant, but I did try oil again, and since then I haven’t gone back. 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

I’ve always made work about people, and couldn’t imagine painting anything else. I’m naturally quite shy and reclusive, so the social scene has always been fascinating to me – how people change their personalities and behaviour, especially in nightclubs. I love watching all the intertwining narratives unfold in front of me. I started to take photographs as a way to remember things when I was feeling nervous or left out, but looking back, sometimes years later, I realised how incredible they can be compositionally. My work has always been quite anecdotal, so the progression felt natural. 

I really love paintings which sit on the border between telling you everything and telling you nothing at all. I want people to feel like they know each figure, and be able to make up their own stories about them, how they got there, and what their relationship is to me/the viewer. I definitely like to imply my own presence in each painting. There’s definitely a tension in this viewpoint too – you know you’re looking through my eyes, but you’re also looking through the eye of a camera. Your gaze hasn’t necessarily been invited, and you’re not sure if the figures are even aware that you’re looking.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

Jenna Gribbon is my favourite painter of all time, and her work made me want to paint. Her surfaces, her mark-making, the way she captures light, her completely masterful observation of colourShe also uses an unbelievably luminous pink, and it’s turned into a little bit of an obsession trying to replicate it in my own work. James Turrell is also a huge influence – I think he’s a genius and his use of light and space to mimic the effects of religion and club/rave culture has definitely informed my work. 

Some artists I’ve been loving a lot recently are Caroline Absher, Sasha Gordon, Caroline Walker, Doron Langberg, Ryan Driscoll, Llinos Owen, Maud Madsen and Owen Rival to name a few!

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Getting a new phone! All of my reference pictures are taken with my phone, so a better camera meant brighter colours especially at night. You can definitely spot the visual shift in my work. 

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

I definitely have the audience in mind, which I’m not sure is a good thing. It adds a lot of pressure as I want people to love my work, but then I also like to think it makes each piece stronger as I’m really thinking about who will ultimately receive it. So far the response to my work has been super understanding, and hearing people’s thoughts really makes me want to continue painting for as long as I can. Someone told me that none of my subjects ever look comfortable, which I think is spot on but is something I hadn’t explicitly realised. Someone else recently said they felt the subjects were familiar, like they’d taken the photograph, or were looking at somebody they knew. Knowing I’ve translated my view to others, and that something personal can stand for bigger ideas which others can relate to is the most rewarding thing about making art. 

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

Colour is something that has definitely evolved in my work recently. During lockdown I did a lot of research into pigment history and colour theory, and expanded my paint collection to include the bright colours I use now. I’ve always struggled to experiment, but in 2020 I submitted a few pieces to All Mouth Gallery’s open call for work 8 x 6 cm and smaller. Since then, miniatures have been a great way for me to test compositions, colours, or even just create a painting with no pressure whatsoever. They’re so small so they don’t take up any resources in terms of time or materials, and you get a finished painting in under two hours. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

Over time I’ve got quite good at knowing the reference picture that will make a good painting. Obviously I do look for a good composition, a key focal point, and interesting expressions and gestures, but there is definitely a feeling you get when you know a photograph is a good one, which isn’t related to any of those things. I usually take it as a positive sign when I’m a bit nervous about starting a painting. I don’t tend to do any colour studies either, and although I draw everything out in pencil first, I never make preliminary sketches. Learning the shapes and colours of an image as a painting builds up definitely improves my observation, and I can get bored of an image very quickly if I’ve drawn or painted it before. And although it’s a little cliché, I’m very much a morning person. If I can start working with a clear head before 9am, it’s usually a productive day. 

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

Nighttime Conversation was the second painting I made for my degree show project, and the first to really solidify the direction I wanted my practice to head in. The reference image was taken on a holiday with a uni society, so I didn’t know anyone, and spent the time surrounded by conversations I wasn’t part of. The three figures occupy the same time frame, but different spaces – one is immersed in a digital world, one is part of a conversation, and one is an onlooker, barely present. The blurred face makes it obvious you’re looking at something photographic, but the leg in the foreground points to an unseen figure, an implied presence whose gaze blurs with the camera’s. There is an uncomfortable tension throughout the piece, and expressions and limbs seem to distort further the longer you look at them. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

Recently I’ve been getting a bit obsessed with intense colour, and learning a lot about colour theory and the physicality of the paint in order to make colours appear as bright as possible. It’s very addicting to work with, as you always feel like you can make the colour even more intense next time. I’m hoping I can continue exploring this in an effort to get as close to neon as possible. As for subject matter, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near finished exploring the nighttime social scene yet. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about making more portrait-oriented work within these spaces – they’re such rich environments with so many stories to offer.