Meet the artists: Milly Peck

An interview with Milly Peck, The Bridget Riley Fellow, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from April–June 2021.

Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Your practice might be located at the intersection between two and three-dimensions and you usually work with painting, sculpture and installations. Last year, during lockdown in London you started to make drawings. What made you settle on this technique and how do you intend to develop it during your six-month residency in Rome?

I think this shift in my work was partly prompted by the unpredicted restrictions on accessing my studio and my tools during lockdown but also served as a timely reaction to making work in quite a stubbornly graphic, reductive way for a number of years with a deliberately limited colour palette. I consider all of my work to be extended forms of drawing in some sense, whether it is with tools used for cutting sculptural materials such as a router which carves grooves into surfaces or using more traditional means. I began drawing on paper in the same way I approach making sculpture-by thinking about the drawn line as a physical cut which needs to be worked around. So most of my drawings using coloured pencil over the last year or so have these almost segmented sections which sit around the drawn line. In this way they become almost diagrammatic or seem to have the potential to be broken apart and be put back together. This attempts to draw attention to their flatness and prevents them being convincingly illusionistic.

Leather Goods, pencil on 220gsm paper.

Another important difference between my sculptural work and these drawings I have made over the last year or so is the shift in the scale of imagery. Ordinarily, I generally work with a one to one human scale whereas within the drawings, the pictorial scale varies which allows for a huge amount of freedom in terms of what I am depicting within a smaller rectilinear frame. My intention for my residency period at the British School at Rome was to develop my drawings on paper in direct relationship to my more sculptural work, allowing the two to overlap and feed into one another. Often my sculptures act as a framework or viewing device, either framing other aspects of an installation or the viewer themselves. In this way, I wanted to experiment with making sculpture which can directly act as a frame, stage or display system for drawings. Inevitably, on arriving in Rome, my drawing has expectedly shifted furthermore. I have been making detailed tonal, observational drawings of mostly mundane objects I have been encountering on a day to day basis at real scale. Drawing is functioning as a method of recording my time here and through amassing drawings, I am recognising commonalities between the objects I select. Objects which are fakes, mimicking or parodying other things, objects which themselves are packaged and framed and objects which have the potential to duplicate, inflate or collapse into themselves. Alongside these drawings, I have been looking at physical display systems within museological, touristic contexts as well as in commercial settings such as shop windows. I have also been photographing the facades of mainly residential apartment buildings looking at the architecture of the balconied exteriors and how these might relate to some of my research around the stage set design of early roman theatre.

Detail from display at Il Museo delle Cere. Photo by the artist.

Your prop-like constructions are reflective of your broader interests in the theatre and the stage. During our studio visit you mentioned your interest in Greek and Roman ancient theatres in Italy. What interests you in particular about them and which theatres do you want to visit during your residency?

I have grown increasingly more interested in the area of theatre over the last few years for a number of different reasons. Some areas of research in my previous work, for example Foley sound production (the recreation of sound effects made in post production in film and TV etc.) and also the comedies of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, have been instrumental in helping me think about the apparatus of performance rather than performance itself whether that be focussing on the use of props or the physical structure of the stage and how these mechanisms can be used to position or frame the performer and audience. Ayckbourn’s plays are written to be performed in the round, much like early Greek theatre but his farcical and often satirical comedies feel somewhat inevitably reflective of early Roman comedic theatre as well as sharing qualities with other peripheral theatrical Italian traditions which informed and accompanied this such as Atellan farce, mime, pantomime and the Etruscan practice of Fescennine verse. Whilst I am researching the representation of these theatrical traditions I am paying particular attention to any clues of the design of the stages they took place on.

Theatrical mask from The Room Of Muses at The Vatican Museum. Photo by the artist.

I am also interested in how the progression of the physical stage in Western history has undergone a sort of flattening where the emphasis seems to have shifted away from the more open shape of Greek theatres and focused towards the embellishment of the scaenae frons (stage backdrop) more typical to the modern proscenium stage we see commonly today which functions more like a picture frame. Whilst it has been important for me to gain an understanding of the physical construction of early Roman theatres by visiting theatre remains at sites such as Ostia Antica or the theatre of Marcellus in Rome, I am most interested in the use of temporary wooden stage sets which existed prior to these permanent structures as well as the implementation of skenographia (scenic painting) within these stages. Whilst none of these temporary structures survive now, there are a number of frescoes which still exist either preserved in museums or in their original sites which depict parts of early wooden theatre sets or have direct reference to the theatre within them. This use of the theatre set as a subject for paintings which would have acted as a background within domestic spaces is especially interesting to me because these frescoes, especially of the Second style in this case, adeptly play with fictional, architectural illusionism. There is a comical perversity attached to truthfully imitating an already inherently artificial, temporary and architecturally false subject matter such as the stage set and so these frescoes become an incredibly multi-dimensional representation of both real and imagined space. 

Detail of research books in studio. Photo by the artist.

There are a number of frescoes in Pompeii which I am looking forward to visiting which include images of theatrical sets or references to theatre such as at the Villa of Oplontis but primarily, the aspect which interests me the most and which I feel is important in relation to my own work more broadly is the area between the real and the artificial and the points at which they overlap and can also become indistinguishable. As mentioned before, this research really serves as a background to my own examination of contemporary spaces which utilise theatrical techniques such as painted backdrops, props and dioramas such as within museums, shop window displays and other public establishments of entertainment.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).