Steve Turner Contemporary – Claire Milbrath: Crome Yellow
By Megan Abrahams
Claire Milbrath’s recent series of narrative paintings are populated with figures that appear to interact while remaining oddly disconnected, echoing the bizarre and intriguing Aldous Huxley novel Crome Yellow, the inspiration behind these works. Milbrath’s signature style, contradictorily and refreshingly naïve, while psychologically insightful at the same time, succeeds in distilling some of the novel’s flavor: Crome Yellow tells a peculiar story of a group of misaligned, eccentric, largely insecure and pretentious characters who have gathered for a summer holiday party set in the 1920s in the garden of Crome, a centuries-old estate in the English countryside.
The Montreal-based artist takes a largely two-dimensional approach. Expansive vistas of green represent the verdant lawns of a fictional garden. Gradations of blue, pink and white—and occasional yellow marks—describe nuanced skyscape and water, adding contrast. Flat planes meet at a horizon, so that sky and landscape are clearly indicated, while middle ground and foreground flow together so they are almost indistinguishable. The net effect of this merged middle-foreground is an odd sense that the composition is pouring out of the frame. The scale in most of these paintings is just large enough to give the viewer a sense of mise en scène.
In these various vignettes, as in the novel, points of view shift from one character, or group, to another, focusing primarily on a central figure, Poor Gray, an androgynous gay character cultivated from the artist’s imagination. Emphasizing the figures, outlines define and add contour to forms and features. While casually posed, the figures convey an air of self-conscious discomfort. Through Milbrath’s adroit portrayal, the subtlest details—the direction of a gaze, the position of a figure, the clothing—suggest much about the inner workings of each: pomposity, frustration, wistfulness, lust and boredom are somehow implied with spare hints and a witty flair.
The works take cues from 18th-century fête champêtre paintings, portraying as they do a gathering of aristocratic subjects indulging in leisurely pursuits in pastoral settings, all cleverly infused with a contemporary ironic twist.