Meet the artists: Jeff McMillan

An interview with Jeff McMillan, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

Old objects found on street corners or in flea markets have often been the starting point for your work. How were you inspired by what you found in Rome? How are those materials different from ones you would usually find in London? 

I knew about the Porta Portese market before I came to Rome, it is famous and historic if you are interested in flea markets – a little like Brick Lane or Portobello in London. I think it’s probably not as interesting as it once was and there is now less secondhand material, but I still visited many times and found things that became part of my finished work here. For example, I bought a beautiful old briefcase made entirely of plywood, and I used it to make a block print, it has a lovely grain along with scars and scrapes from use.

Studio, woodblock printing. Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

At the beginning of my residency I set myself the task of trying to represent the whole of Rome through the wood I might find on its streets, and it was a good excuse for getting out and seeing the city and its many sites. Once I bought a bicycle (another purchase from Porta Portese!) it allowed me to explore pretty much any part of the city, and so I attempted to do that. I would often locate a faraway church or a museum and on my way to visit I would keep my eyes open for any discarded wood, like furniture, pallets, or building materials. I think this way of working allows you to look at the city through a different lens, it makes you notice the textures of buildings and street surfaces, sometimes colours of pigments against one another. If you think about the way you can switch a Google map from simply street layout to a satellite image – it’s the same place but you see it completely differently – it all of a sudden has detail and nuance.  

Studio works in progress. Photo by the artist.

A term that architects sometimes use to describe a city is to refer to its urban grain, and that sort of fits into thinking about its surfaces and textures on an almost granular level. I think that is reflected in the works I am making, block printing with wood is nothing if not an expression of the surface, how it has been treated, or neglected, or weathered starts to tell its own story. In the case of the prints I am making at the BSR I am adding to this my own subjective composition and colours which in fact are based on the colour combinations I have seen in marble in many of the churches.

Studio, woodblock printing. Works in progress. Photo by the artist.

How has your art evolved over time, especially after you moved from Texas to Europe? Do you think that everyone owns a sort of mnemonic archive/inventory of shapes that influence his/her imagination?

After working for many years (and I have been working in London for more than 20 years now) you get to a point where you can look back and see how everything connects up.  I think I recognise I have my own ‘default settings’, that is to say I keep returning to the same sort of aesthetic. For me that is probably based in some way on the flat, unending landscape where I come from and perhaps by extension is connected to American Minimalism – so an attention to materiality for it’s own sake, and a reductive approach where I am looking for the simplest way to achieve or depict something. I sometimes think I am trying to make non-fiction works, images that convey a truth or reality, a straight-forwardness about object or form. 

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).