During my brief period at art school one of the tutors 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, in an attempt by 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 in a very subtle way, although 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 subtly influence their interpretation. Human existence and mortality is essentially the driving narrative behind my work.
Initially I chose to use simple everyday objects 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, using the background and the shadows to convey a subtle sense of disquiet or unease within the painting whilst bringing about a transcendence of the chosen object(s).
The objects I used when I began painting in the late 90s were often broken or damaged or had a broken component 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 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 this, 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 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 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 sand-cast New Zealand made Fun Ho! toys of the middle of last century in particular, are strong symbols for those that recognize them (people -boys in particular, now men- from that era) and are strong indicators of the passing of time- they take us back to memories of a childhood that may now seem long ago, and through this a sense of the time that has passed and perhaps a strong reminder of our own mortality.
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) 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, perhaps in the process adding their own interpretation. These paintings have tended to not just be about human mortality, or at least not only so. They have at times just 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 perched on a persons hand. These paintings speak of the impact we humans have on our planet and the life upon it, through 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. 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 convey via their hairstyle, attitude, way of dressing, piercings etc, or just through something undefinable that makes their presence in some way unique) and I leave the viewer to allow their reaction to create their own sense of story.
- Peter Miller