My work has its origins in the Dutch Vanitas still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, the period during and following the boom time in the tulip trade in the Nederland.
During my brief period at art school a tutor showed me a book titled Still Life, and within it was a chapter devoted to the Dutch Vanitas painters. The work of the Vanitas period used strong symbolism in the paintings in an attempt to bring people's awareness back to human mortality and the transient nature of existence- this being in response to the period of opulence that the Dutch were experiencing through the economic high times of the tulip boom, and under the influence of the churches- to remind them of their own finite nature and through this bring them back to their religious roots (and to the churches..)
This triggered in me a starting point for what I wished to express within my work, and has remained the foundation of my work ever since that time. My work has changed a lot over time. The Vanitas influence is often still there, sometimes very obvious (eg. within the skull paintings that I sometimes use to express more obviously my thoughts on the finite nature of human existence) but often in a very subtle way or even not at all obvious to the viewer ( it has probably never been obvious to others} , but it has led me off on many tangents along the way. I like to paint about human mortality and the impermanence of existence, as this is constant within my own thoughts, but I tend to often disguise it so that my story is not obvious and does not overly influence the viewers own reading of the image whilst at the same time perhaps trying to very subtly influence their interpretation. Human existence and mortality is essentially the driving narrative behind my work. But saying this I must also include that capturing the beauty in and of human existence is also my intention.
Initially I chose to use simple everyday objects as my symbols to try and convey the feeling of fragility and impermanence, choosing objects that were plain and simple but in my view in their own way also beautiful, and using them in a simple uncluttered background, the background and the shadows used to convey a subtle sense of disquiet or "difference" within the painting whilst bringing about a transcendence or elevation of the chosen object(s).
The objects I used when I began painting in the late 90s were often broken or damaged or a broken component was included within the composition. This has been my way of indicating the impermanence of material possessions and through this suggesting also the impermanence of human existence, my modern day interpretation and expression of the Vanitas work that I had studied. At the same time I have sometimes chosen to paint simple objects purely because of a beauty that I see in them, striving to elevate these objects through the use of colour and composition, in a sense give them a moment on stage under the spotlight. There is a sense of the Japanese aethestic of Wabi Sabi within the damaged and worn objects, the celebrating of the damaged object and seeing the beauty within whilst also appreciating the message it contains of impermanence.
The finding of a little lead-based toy bus, very worn and minus its wheels, brought me to the first toy painting. This toy bus showed the signs of use and abuse and the ravages of time, and the age of the toy was an indicator of a time that now seems long ago. This was the first of what became many paintings of toy cars and trucks and these toys are still a recurring subject for my work. I feel the toy cars and trucks that I choose to paint, the die-cast or more often the sand-cast New Zealand made Fun Ho! toys of the middle of last century in particular, are strong symbols for those that recognize them and are strong indicators of the passing of time- they perhaps take us back to memories of a childhood that may now seem long ago, never to return, and through this a sense of the time that has passed and with this a strong reminder of our own mortality. I continue to paint the toys because I continue to enjoy them as objects as well as symbols, but also because others seem to enjoy them so much- reminders of passed times and links to memories perhaps forgotten.
In recent years I have introduced the human figure into my work, partly because I have always intended/expected to do so (simply due to a love of the human form but also because in my youth I had occasional images pass through my mind of this being my future, images that I thought were a fantasy but that eventually seemed to be more a destiny) and also because through this I am able to create a stronger narrative within the work, a more obvious sense of story within the painting for the viewer to be drawn in to, with the viewer perhaps adding their own interpretation in the process. These paintings have tended to not just be about human mortality, or at least not only so. They have at times been a celebration of human potential and also have been my vehicle to make comment on the environment and our impact upon it, this bringing to mind the state of the planet due to our abuse of it and, correspondingly, the current state of human existence and our tenuous grip on this existence within the future of this planet.
During a trip to India I created a painting of a small bird (an Indian Kingfisher) on my hand (titled Sheltering From The Storm). This subsequently introduced a new theme into my work, going under the general umbrella title "Endangered Species" and has since led to a number of works based on birds native to New Zealand, predominately perched on a persons hand. These paintings speak of the impact we humans have on our planet and the life upon it, through greed and environment destruction (and also in New Zealand's case the introduction of predators), our tendency too often being destroyers and exploiters of our environment and life within it rather than protectors and guardians as we should be.
Portrait painting has now also become a passion for me- the challenge of trying to capture the look and personality of a person keeps me intrigued. In portrait painting there is a sense of freezing the subject/ sitter in a moment in time, in a sense immortalizing them, and in this I feel also a connection to the Vanitas genre- a painted image of a person frozen in a moment in time whilstt the body continues to age and eventually decay . At times I use the image to portray a sense of story, perhaps using the title to lead in to that story, but more often I paint people that take my interest purely because of the story they already seem to be conveying (through the look they present via their hairstyle, attitude, way of dressing, piercings etc, or just through something undefinable that makes their presence in some way unique and strong) and I leave the viewer to allow their reaction to create their own sense of story.
Throughout all of this I feel a connection within all of my work to the foundation that I started from, the work of the Vanitas painters. As I mentioned, it may not be always obvious to the viewer, but I feel its presence always. Perhaps I can summarize it best by saying that my intention/ desire is to capture the beauty that surrounds us in so many places and ways (including the beauty of the human form) whilst also trying to bring the viewers attention/ awareness back to our part in this beauty and our need to live with awareness and tread lightly as we walk through life, remaining aware that our existence here is of relatively short duration.
- Peter Miller