In the Studio with Mia Middleton

Words by

Sofia Hallström

In the Studio with Mia Middleton

SH: Your solo show at PM/AM comes after a residency with the gallery in London. Are you enjoying being back in Australia?

MM: It is so calming to be back in summer and it's special to see friends and family again. It's nice for me to be on solid ground at the moment because so much has been shifting, even conceptually for the last six months. Having said that, it's just going to keep changing and moving now because we are in the process of moving to Portugal!

Party, 2022 Oil on linen. 40 x 40 cm. Image courtesy of PM/AM and the artist.

SH: Can you tell us about your painting process and how you approach making the work in the studio?

MM: It's an amorphous process in a way. I'm dealing with psychology and interiority and mental phenomena, to some degree. I don't always have a very clear sense of things as I'm starting out, but I'll begin with something that isn't leaving me alone; it might be a memory, a mental image, a dream fragment, a word, an experience that I'm navigating etc. It's not always something from my own past, but it’s always something slippery or elusive. For my solo show at PM/AM, there was a specific memory emerging in my mind that was at the core of the show. It was a very early memory from when I was really young in a ballet class, it might be my first memory of a range of strong emotions. I don't necessarily aim to find closure or completion when exploring these memories as of course they are so ethereal, I just like to start with something that's uncertain, something tempting me to go deeper, the lack of clarity is both alluring and challenging. There is much about the interplay between desire and discovery inside my work.

I'm also interested in the role of narrative in our lives, the stories that we make, create and tell ourselves. We do this for a sense of security, legitimacy, fantasy etc, but in reality stories never end and knowledge is never absolute. Experiences and memories are always informing us in new ways. So in my work I don't really try to wholly uncover the story or piece of mental phenomena that is prevalent in my mind, but rather to stay open and soak up the impressions and feelings it sparks, gathering meanings that might take me all over the place: a state of ambiguity and imaginary possibilities.

The show at PM/AM is an intimate exploration of the flow of the self over a life, perhaps over generations, trauma and control and the ways one might navigate or process early experiences. That psychological tension between past, present and future, youth and adulthood, how we want to be and how we actually are, is something that I found myself exploring in the show. As usual for me, the works are fairly familiar glimpses of life which make up a fragmented scene, a web of experiences and memories that are put together in a way that intimates a story, but it's not necessarily chronological or linear. In this way I hope it allows for the viewer to unlock their own subconscious connections and enter into a permeable interior landscape with questions or memories of their own.

Installation view, Mia Middleton at PM/AM. Image courtesy of PM/AM and the artist.

SH: You often take found images that reference early memories, time or a trace of a scene, and you paint them in a way that only allows the viewer in so far…

MM: Someone asked me about this recently, and I referred to myself as the director of a film where many of the scenes are missing, and it's not because you haven't created them yet, it's because they don't exist concretely or you don't know what they are. It's important to me that I'm also not trying to create something that I completely understand, or gives the full story, otherwise I/we wouldn't be in a landscape of  mystery, tension, introspection. Beyond content, there are stylistic ways to keep things covert as well. I like to take simple objects or moments and place them in a plane that straddles the line between reality and surreality. The monochromatic palette, the focus of the ‘frame’, or the hazy surface beneath an object are good examples of that.

Installation view, Mia Middleton at PM/AM. Image courtesy of PM/AM and the artist.

SH: In general an exploration of the unknown is probably what keeps most artists going, to keep on discovering…

MM: This is the work of every artist, that’s what it has to be. With my work, I feel as though I'm engaged with this thematically too; the act of evocation and images as activators of dormant or concealed regions of the psyche. It's a really intentional practice for myself personally as well as the work conceptually. There’s something of a collective memory or shared experience that I’m hoping to engage in also, that I think many artists deal with in different ways.

SH: I want to ask you a bit more about film. When we spoke, you mentioned that you came to painting during lockdown after having spent much of your time previously working with different mediums, like sculpture and film. How did working with these other mediums affect your painting practice?

MM: I'm a huge film buff. I've always been drawn to the storytelling and world-building aspect of film. In my previous art practice, I was interested in experiential work, where the whole and the pieces couldn't be divorced from each other and it was hard to define where the pieces ended and the whole began, like scenes from a film. The fluidity of time based work always animated me in some way even if I was working in sculpture or installation.

Nowadays I've found that painting is the closest conduit to my creative wellspring. I can bring together materiality, fantasy, and abstraction into this one simple plain, its limitation to the canvas is its power for me. When I was working with physical objects or photography, I felt like I wasn’t able to catch or harness my voice as easily. Having said that, I plan to invite other mediums into my practice again in the future, but painting feels like my absolute base.

I'm fascinated by the time-based nature of making a painting and using it to talk about time. I watched an amazing artist talk by Cynthia Daignault - whose work is very connected to time - when I was doing a residency in Barcelona in 2018 which inspired me to pursue painting more deeply. I had previously worked with similar concepts, such as creating a fragmented scene or series that leaves it up to the viewer to extrapolate or fill in the gaps, but it wasn’t until that residency that I decided to bring painting into that.

In the next show I do with my Sydney gallery COMA in 2024, I want to be ambitious and test new ideas to bring in spatial elements that augment that coalescence in the work, or the maze-like ephemerality of things in a physical way.

Haven, 2022 Oil on linen. 20 x 20 cm. Image courtesy of PM/AM and the artist.

SH: Talking about environment and stimuli, your solo show in London comes after a 2 month residency with PM/AM in a studio space in North West London. Do you feel that the change of environment affected your way of working or the direction of work in any way?

MM: Definitely. Every residency enables me to go deeper into my practice and myself. Being alone working in a new place holds a mirror up to things that our familiar environments can’t. For my work that’s key, it’s like removing the security so I can extend through the darkness. This residency also marked a few decisive experiments in terms of colour palette and scale. In the show, I used these browns and reds and fleshy tones that had a feminine feel to them. I generally like muddy tones in my work, but this show had a specific palette that was different from previous shows and I enjoyed the change. Maintaining experimentation in the work is always rewarding.

Head, 2022 Oil on linen. 40 x 40 cm. Image courtesy of PM/AM and the artist.

SH: In terms of curating the show too, the placement of the paintings feels deliberate and as though you are setting up conversations between the works…

MM: Exactly. It's hard to articulate the way that process works, as you are pulling out associations and there are so many directions for curating the paintings. Of course I always have an overarching scene or set I have built through the work, but often the details come to life and evolve during install. I always create paintings in a body of work holistically, within that I may create some paintings as a series, some associations between works form in the studio, others in install. I'm conscious of things presenting themselves with some discordance and not being too prescriptive. The curation echoes the process of bringing the paintings into the world too, as there is this element of impulse or being very attentive to what is arising rather than controlling outcomes. There's so much at work beyond what we can see.

SH: It's reflective of the world-building idea, bringing fragments together and creating something that's expansive…

MM: I find it interesting how something can be both contained and expansive simultaneously. There are so many dualities and dichotomies and correlations that exist in life… this is the stuff of life! We’re only here for a moment observing and navigating this cosmic habitable window. I understand the need to contain things in order to move through daily life, but of course complexity and variance is everywhere really. Much of reality as we know it can't be completely simplified down. That oscillation between order and chaos is so intriguing.

SH: Which artistic tool could you least do without?

MM: That's a really hard question… probably my eyes.

Prima, 2022 Oil on linen. 20 x 20 cm. Image courtesy of PM/AM and the artist.
No items found.
Photography by Charlie Wheeler. Courtesy of PM/AM and the artist.