Mark Milroy: Cowboy Up
Mark Milroy’s narrative paintings exude a certain kind of magic. He is deeply engaged with memories of growing up in St Thomas, Ontario, a childhood where the woods, lakes and rivers formed a backdrop to unsupervised escapades and the wildest of high jinks. This engagement with the wonder of the natural world, and the stimulation of experience throughout his life, provide fertile material for this body of work. The oil paintings, ranging from portraiture and landscape to still-life (and sometimes all three in a single work) blend the line between truth and fiction: they tell compelling, ambiguous stories sprung from memory, coupled with the power of artistic invention. For Milroy, this ambiguity leaves space for the viewer to come to the paintings with their own interpretation:
“I draw upon experiences and poignant moments from my life for imagery, my goal is to convey some of the very honest moments of humor, oddness, frustration, joy, wonder, and pain that I have felt. Everything I choose has meaning to me and to the world that surrounds me. I attempt to make paintings that are poetic and filled with metaphor.”
Seen as a group in this exhibition, the works take us on a journey across large canvases where figures of boys and horses move through wooded landscapes or across the backdrop of radiant stone walls, to another where a felled tree takes on the aspect of a figure, “a great sleeping giant” as Milroy sees it, to seductive en plein air paintings that he describes as “portraits of nature”. During the pandemic, Milroy took long walks in Prospect Park near his home in Brooklyn, the closest he could get to a rural landscape. He was drawn to the sight of horses and riders (prompting memories of riding as a boy), and also to the byproducts of the park’s woodland management:
“There were a few spots where I would sit and draw logs, sawed stumps, hewn trunks. They began to take on a figurative, statuesque quality. I felt it was not that different from drawing a Greek sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
In some instances his process is intuitive, not pre-meditated, “drawing” directly onto the canvas with paint, without the use of preliminary drawings. He describes his paintings taking shape by laying down the pigment and building color relationships, the forms emerging on a flattened plane to suggest a sense of space. At other times, he will make drawings, prints and multiple copies of an idea in different mediums before embarking on a painting. His striking compositions are unconventional; a rider will be positioned moving just in or out of the painting, scenes are interrupted and half hidden by the vertical lines of tree trunks, exuberant plant forms engulf another canvas with marks of expressive spontaneity. He relates his compositions to musical arrangements, creating “fast notes and beats, and then a quietness”, resulting in works that draw the viewer’s eye across the canvas, holding our attention by a robust unfolding of both form and narrative.
The phrase “cowboy up” originated from the world of rodeo and cowboy culture, but transcended its initial context to become a symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity. It embodies a mindset of resilience, self-sufficiency, and a never-give-up attitude. Milroy grew up surrounded by children in a family with five siblings, an extended group of childhood friends and is himself the father of two sons. He explains the figures in the series representing the notion of youth and boyhood, but also as versions or ideas of himself. About the phrase, he writes:
“…"cowboy up” encompasses so much of what I feel, and have felt, it naturally belongs to these paintings. We are all faced with challenges through life, and it’s about how we respond. You dust yourself off and get on with it”.
Geronimo was the first narrative Milroy painted in the series. As a child he was entranced with stories about the fearless leader and medicine man from the Bedonkohe band of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. “I learned as much about him as I could. He was fierce and strong and faced more challenges that one should in a lifetime”. In this painting, he describes Geronimo “riding through a landscape I once owned. A paradise if you want it to be”.
“When I was an undergrad at School of the Art Institute of Chicago I was telling stories of my youth to my TA and he said these are the paintings I needed to make. I had no idea how at the time. It would take another 20 years of painting before I began creating narrative paintings based on my memories. My painting vernacular needed to catch up to my ideas.”
Milroy has captured something of the zeitgeist in this series, with a new generation of artists returning to narrative and representational painting as a form to offer fresh perspectives of the world we live in. Autobiographical narratives allow the artist to infuse the work with experience, memory and a sense of identity. The power of Milroy’s lyrical paintings lies in their ability to provoke thought, illicit an emotional response and engage viewers in a conversation about the human condition.
Hawk + Hive