In Axis Mundi, his current painting exhibition at Elizabeth Harris, Ron Milewicz shows a body of work that reveals his continuous fascination with the mystery of trees. While focusing his gaze on a specific woodland landscape ,the Hudson Valley woodlands, Ron Milewicz is opening a portal not only to the universal meaning of trees, but also to the overall vulnerability and wonder of life on this planet. Ron Milewicz shares with Art Spiel some reflections on his approach to painting and on what draws him to his consistent thematic exploration.
AS: You had studied art history at Cornell and architecture at Columbia before training as a painter at the New York Studio School. How do you think art history and architecture informed your painting?
RM: Having knowledge of art history gives me the sense of a responsibility – a responsibility to the tradition of painting and a responsibility to push it to another place. When I am working on a painting, multiple associations can come to mind and lead me to investigate how a certain artist might handle a subject, a color, or even a shape. Often I realize the association only after I have completed a work, but it will still open up ways of going forward. I feel a great freedom to move back and forth in time and across continents, but it is not the equivalent of just doing a Google search about painters or images. What’s different is that I sometimes carry an image around in my head for decades because it resonates with me. That association germinates at the right moment and then I join a conversation that may be years, decades, or even centuries old.
At the time I was in architecture school, drafting was done entirely by hand. My professors at Columbia emphasized particular attention to the simple act of drawing a line in relation to every other line – its value, its thickness, how it starts and stops, how it crosses another line, how one holds a pencil and turns it in the hand. So, I have learned to consider what the line represents – a position in space, the definition of a volume, an internal form, even its conceptual weight in the design. I carry this precision and care for each mark and its meaning into my painting.
An architectural drawing, whether a plan view or a conceptualized representation of space, is simultaneously representative and highly abstract. For me a good painting is the same. The grid, proportion, numerical relationship, hierarchy, sequence, rhythm, and counterpoint are all preoccupations in my painting. The role of geometry and the horizontal and vertical may be more apparent in my earlier cityscapes but they are still very much present in my recent landscapes. I begin each landscape drawing with a gridded armature. Just like how buildings require the integration of multiple systems, both physical and conceptual, in my drawings and paintings I have to consider each decision in relation to every other. Buildings are meant to be inhabited, and a good architect will carefully consider how they will be moved through. For me, the same is true of a painter and paintings.
AS: It seems that you have been focusing on drawing and painting of trees in recent years, including your body of work in Axis Mundi, your current painting exhibition at Elizabeth Harris. What draws you to this imagery and what would you like to share about the paintings in this show?
RM: I have been a New Yorker my whole life, and for years I craved the silence of nature. The trees in Central Park are spectacular, but I am not interested in the artifice of the setting or the unavoidable encounters with the pleasure seekers roaming a park. All of that precipitated a move to rural upstate New York and my turn towards trees.
The show’s title, Axis Mundi, refers to the mythological concept, common to many cultures, of the tree as a universal pillar that puts heaven, earth, and underworld into communication with each other. It is a powerful image. A massive trunk, rooted in the earth, speaks of gravity while the branches in the light of the sky create arabesques that suggest the opposite. The lives of trees, and so the passage of time, are archived in the infinite and unexpected variety of trunks and branches. Weather, wind, light, temperature, injury have become material. Part of my fascination with trees is that, for all their solidity, they are also transient, not only changing color and dress with the seasons but transforming with every shift in light. Light is crucial to these paintings. I try to evoke both a natural light and, simultaneously, an other-worldly illumination. Same as a painter, trees turn dirt and light into form. It is a miraculous feat.
I am also interested in the ongoing communal narrative of trees as they grow in response to one another and to their environment. Scientists now understand that trees communicate with one another. A mysterious and silent drama of support and conflict thus permeates a forest. Of course, it is difficult to paint from nature without being aware of the existential threat it is facing from development and climate change. Watching these trees, it is worrisome to see their stress manifested in their growth patterns. The paintings in this show are as much an appreciation of the primordial force of trees as they are potential elegies. While I would like the paintings to be an invitation to draw sustenance from nature, I also would like for them to subtly press the viewer to recognize the undercurrent of vulnerability and mortality present in landscape.
AS: In his essay to your previous exhibition at Elizabeth Harris, in 2018, critic David Ebony wrote that your trees are “no ordinary specimens” but rather “appear as spectral presences.” What is your take on that, and can you elaborate?
RM: David is quite right that I do not regard these trees as ordinary specimens. My work celebrates the calm mystery I feel is present in the world. It is important that the works are connected to particular places and also important that they leave those places in some way. Through the translation of scenes into paint I try to arrive at other locations – noiseless dreamscapes for viewers to inhabit. Spending hours in the woods, I have become aware of the trees as silent witnesses to the life forces that move through and around them. They are animated despite their stillness. I do not, however, see the trees merely as stand-ins for the human figure, though I can see how that reading might be possible.
AS: Let’s get closer to a painting of your choice in Axis Mundi – what would you like to share about your thought and work processes while making this painting?
RM: Each of my paintings starts with a drawing that I make directly of a specific place, usually within a relatively short time over several sittings. I began the drawing for Meadow Moon one summer and then shelved it for about two years until I “rediscovered” it. I felt that there was something intriguing about the rhythms and darkness of the foliage, the tension of the central gap between the trees in the foreground, the intervals between the vertical tree trunks, and the luminosity of the distant space. I began a painting based on the drawing about six months after I picked up the drawing again. These breaks in time allow a certain distancing from the subject so that other possibilities can enter.
When drawing, I love the receptivity of the soft cotton paper to pencil – almost as if the paper is absorbing the graphite – and how the luminosity comes from the paper surface. I wanted to find an equivalently responsive surface for oil paint and ultimately settled on a lead-primed linen. In the act of painting, I rely on my memory of the place as well as on suggestions that come from the drawing. Though I made the drawing for Meadow Moon outdoors and during the day, it is a view that I see from my house and is very familiar to me at all times of day and in all seasons. There was a quality in the darks of the drawing that gave it a nocturnal feel. The moon in the painting originated in a suggestive shape in the foliage. The gap between the two trees in the foreground is placed exactly at the center. I like to begin an image with a clear decision, often a very obvious one, about the placement of a primary form in relation to the rectangle and then enjoy the serendipitous play between organic growth and the strict geometry that follows. That way, intuition and rationality keep each other in check. Color decisions oscillate between memories, implicit color in the tonal drawing, invention, and responses to the game being played out on the canvas.
AS: How do you view this body of work in relation to your previous paintings and what is your takeaway forward?
RM: Though my recent landscapes differ in subject matter and approach from my earlier cityscapes, they share the same desire to create a stilled world. I have restrained the color and paint application in this attempt at distillation. Also, my move towards nature reflects my search for a profound quiet. Going forward, I will continue working from nature. Perhaps I will explore other kinds of landscapes but at the moment I am still drawn to the mystery of the Hudson Valley woodlands.
Elizabeth Harris Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011, February 22 – March 28, 2020
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com