I first came across the artist Lisa Milroy in an art class at school – we were told to look at how she arranged everyday objects into groups and grids and created contemporary still life paintings of plates, hardware, tyres, and books. However, for me, it was her repetitive depiction of clothing and shoes that inspired the watered down derivatives that graced the pages of my GCSE sketchbook.
One of her earlier works from 1985 ‘Shoes’ that is now in the Tate collection, shows what appear to be the same pair of black, pointed-toe heels, in different arrangements and angles. The removal of the shoes from their context and their repetition abstracts and transforms them into a pattern and a series of shapes. However, there is a sense of intimacy and identity, conveyed in the paintings that perhaps stems from her choice to use shoes, which have such a personal connection to their wearer. Her painterly technique and unusual compositions in the representation of dress create a sense of personality and evoke the characters of the wearers despite the absence of the body or surrounding context. Her work greatly influenced my short-lived artistic aspirations, and they were the marriage of my interest in art and fashion.
Her early work was extremely important to me, so I was both delighted and surprised to come across her work again, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Amongst the paintings and the prints was a long, floral dress hanging on the wall from a white coat hanger. The larger-than-life garment trailed onto the floor, its hem section suspended on a wooden stand. Upon closer inspection, you could see that the dress was in fact a painting – the floral pattern of the fabric was painted onto the material, creating a three-dimensional painting that disturbs the limitations of the square canvas and blank wall. Milroy’s work is no longer the painterly depiction of clothing, but is the physical item of dress. Titled ‘Dress-Paintings’, these works are paintings created directly on dresses, some of which are still wearable items of clothing.
Milroy’s latest works question the definitions of what is art and what is clothing. Her ‘Dress-Paintings’ appear to be items of clothing in their form and three-dimensionality, but they are hung on the wall as objects of art. Her ‘Wearable Paintings’, further question how art is supposed to be displayed, with the body becoming the wall on which the painting is hung. They are different from fashion and objects of dress, yet they play on ideas of ‘fashion as art’, of the body as a site of individuality and self-expression through dress, and dress as a commodity. The art object is bought, owned and physically worn by its wearer – drawing comparisons to the exclusivity and projection of status in the consumption of high-end designer brands. Amongst the same repetitive prints and paintings at the Summer Exhibition, Milroy did something entirely unique; she created wearable art that at once highlights the absurdity of the art and fashion industries. However, she also created extremely beautiful and conceptual objects that are simultaneously art and items of dress.