RESUME effacement

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					Ian Milliss began exhibiting in the late 1960s at Central Street Gallery in Sydney, the centre
of hard edged abstraction at the time. From this point, and through his preliminary work with
shaped canvases his early work progressed from large colour field abstract painting on shaped
canvases through minimalist sculpture and installations to conceptual art in the late 60s - early
70s. He also showed at Watters Gallery and was included in the Transfield Prize and
Contemporary Art Society group shows, culminating in the.John Kaldor Art Project 2, with
Harald Szeemann in 1971 which showcased the work of Australia's young avant-garde artists.
This was exhibited at Bonython Gallery, Sydney and the National Gallery of Victoria.

By the end of 1967 a range of influences converged to develop the emerging concepualist
tendencies already begun in the very early work of Milliss. The first was the opening of
Central Street Gallery in Sydney, which was the centre of hard edged abstraction at the time.
The generation of artists exhibiting in that inaugural year were Tony McGillick, Michael
Johnson, Tony Coleing, Gunter Christman, Dick Watkins, David Aspden, Vernon Treweeke,
John Peart, Ron Robertson-Swann – a whole generation of painters- a generation older, but
doing what had been already started in comparative isolation by Milliss. These artists had
mostly come back from London, and were reproducing a kind of ‘internationalist’ style of
painting. Milliss’ work to this point largely consisted of modular, repetitive, geometric shapes
grouped together to produce a series of ‘folding’ illusionistic canvases. He was interested in
ambiguity, illusion and reality, multiple readings – a way of looking and seeing in a reflexive
way, which, as he says, were about imposing a structure on a reality which was ultimately

So it was also at the end of the same year that the exhibition ‘Two Decades of American Art’
arrived, bringing together the work of Johns, Louis, Newman, Stella, Rothko, de Kooning,
Reinhardt, Warhol, Held, Noland and Frankenthaler. This had the effect on Milliss of pushing
his growing interest in concepts of art to greater depths whereby he moved into a more radical
style, which involved a readiness to break out of prescribed moulds in order to challenge the
status quo although he was still exhibiting the modular works of his earlier phase.

These developing conceptual works were largely in reaction to the arid Greenbergian
Formalism which dominated the art world at the time and which operated within a system of
limitations. He was generally moving away from painting, although progressively through the
breaking out of the picture plane and the introduction of textured surfaces.

‘The Field’ – a survey exhibition of current Australian art in1968 attempted to map ‘new’ art
tendencies in Australia although this consisted of a kind of ‘lyrical abstraction’ which held
onto the Greenbergian rule however, Milliss had already moved away from geometric
painting and was heading towards minimalism which was more concerned with the physical
properties of different materials. He started to use a wider range of substances like flat sheets
of aluminium and lights, later using materials to provoke a physical response from the viewer
such as thick sponge rubber mats which forced the viewer to walk across them to enter the
gallery1, or partially blocked doorways or taped pathways on the floor, or works to be driven
over in cars. From 1969 the works became less and less pictorial with more emphasis on the
arrangement of objects which were nothing in themselves – giving out few cues to suggest a
‘work of art’. These works were open to misinterpretation often and created a certain amount
of critical animosity while simultaneously being highly praised for their audacity, provocation
and originality.
    See catalogue Monochrome
It was also in 1969 that Christo and Jeanne Claude began work on ‘Wrapped Coast’ - with
which Milliss became actively involved. It was an enormous project, of the kind of massive
scale minimalist work being done by ‘environmental’ artists, such as Morris, Judd, Andre,
Serra, Sonnier and Saret - who used the landscape as their medium. It gave his work the
legitimacy and confidence to go beyond the bounds of current local practice into the almost
unstoppable realm of physical phenomena as movement, process and change. He was
increasingly moving away from the limitations of orthodox art practices, and at the same time
distancing himself from institutional sanctioning, although not challenging the gallery system
in its entirety. His position was one of questioning what it meant to be an artist and inevitably
led to a more politicised stance in relation to the conditions of production.

Around this time Donald Brook coined the term ‘post-object art’. This was a period of
exploration into which Milliss started to seriously question the relation between art and
society with the resulting collapse of the boundaries between art, artifact and context in order
to separate and analyse the component parts. For him the period beginning in 1968, when he
first exhibited, to 1971, when he ceased, marked an ongoing strategy of artistic effacement,
from object to concept to absence. If the first phase, until 1968 could be considered solid,
after that, for the next year, it became fragmentary, although still physically based. There was
still a focus on the phenomena of paint on canvas no matter how spread out on the gallery
walls the works became. After that, in 1969 canvas gave way to outlines conceived and
constructed in rope and wood. He was trying to see how far he could go to keep the illusion of
pictorial space while employing materials which discouraged this. In the movement towards
minimalism, the work became much less pictorial, less interested in illusion, more interested
in concepts of works of art, by using arrangements of objects within and part of the gallery
infrastructure. Wall, floors, furniture – the view, awareness of space and the peculiarities of
galleries as ‘spaces apart’ concerned him more than the art object per se. In the making of the
work indistinguishable from its surroundings, to make it ‘disappear’ Milliss had set himself
the task of removing all the cues of art’s specialness in order to expose a kind of fakery which
he considered to be the manufactured by-product of vested interest. Art had to be art, rather
than to just look like art.

In 1970 at the age of 19 Milliss was invited to enter The Transfield Prize. The work he
entered was ‘Walk along this line’ which was about the physical sensation of being in your
own body. It was a somewhat satirical piece, a joke at the expense of body and performance
art, in that he was using the audience’s body – making it perform in order to achieve the work
of art. Using just a strip of masking tape two inches out from the wall with a set of
instructions on the wall – to walk along the line, produced an instant sense of vertigo in the
participant. Then came the CAS annual show, and the placing of a sponge rubber doormat
which had to be crossed in order to enter the gallery. The gradual degradation of the sponge
rubber as it was walked over provided an equally satirical commentary on the nature of
entering an art gallery, as well as the perhaps more serious aspect, of the physical sensation of
walking on something not quite stable.

The challenge to remove the materiality of ‘art’ –to see that ‘art’ is not its objecthood
occupied Milliss for much of his early career. At the point where art and life collide - where
meaning is evacuated at the point of its realisation - lies the paradox.

At this time he was elected to the committee of the Contemporary Art Society, then
Australia’s largest and most influential artist’s organisation. In 1973 he was appointed
National Secretary. He was also a founding member of the Victoria Street Resident Action
Group and active in the Green Ban movement which was the beginning of his involvement
with trade unions and community groups.
Working with Christo, when he visited Australia to do ‘Wrapped Coastline’ in 1969, made
him realise that it was possible to produce work which could reach beyond the restrictive art
world audience, and as his work developed more participatory tendencies in the early 70s he
decided to stop exhibiting in galleries and develop a different type of artistic practice which
aimed to reach alternative audiences by using those Australian institutions (like trade unions)
which, while not obviously related to the arts, had played a major part in the development of
Australian culture in the wider sense.

In collaboration with gallery owner Frank Watters, he then set up the Hunter Valley Project, a
series of community art exhibitions and events in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney. The
project examined the relationship between coal mining, farming, wine growing and other
industries in this area and the effect expanded mining was having on the lives of the residents
as shown in art works produced by them and by a number of invited artists and

During the late 70s he was a leader of the artist’s lobby group which brought about the
restructuring of the Sydney Biennale to include more equal representation of women and
indigenous artists. This group eventually became the Artworkers Union, now amalgamated
with Actors Equity and the Journalists Association to form The Media Alliance, the union
representing the arts, media and entertainment industries.

Also in the late 70's, Ian Burn, Terry Smith and Nigel Lendon, the Australian members of the
Art & Language group, returned to Australia, and, with Milliss and others, formed the Media
Action Group. They produced slide shows analysing media issues such as advertising, the
portrayal of women, and media treatment of political issues such as nuclear disarmament.
Milliss was CEO of the company which developed from this group, Union Media Services
Pty Ltd. By the mid 80s it became Australia’s first professional social marketing business,
being employed by government agencies, trade unions and community groups to run social
issues campaigns, marketing ideas rather than products.

Milliss and Burn were actively involved in the development of the Australia Council's Art and
Working Life program, which was set up to develop public access to the arts through the
workplace in collaboration with union and employer organisations. In a number of position
papers and publications written for the Australia Council, Milliss and Burn developed the
theoretical framework which led to the progression of the program from its simple
beginnings, staging concerts and plays during workers lunch hours, to an extensive program
involving all arts with an emphasis on access and involvement and the placement of artists in

In the late 80s, as a member of the Cultural Committee of the Australian Council of Trade
Unions (ACTU) he drafted a new cultural policy which emphasised the role of arts and
science, including artist’s placement in industry to gain access to high technology skills.
Many aspects of this were then incorporated into the Australian Government’s arts policy in
its Creative Nation paper in 1994.

Throughout the 80’s Milliss had been working on a series of drawings which led to computer
based works which are either printed or painted at the final full scale. Works, shown in
Florida in 1999, are intended to critique the conceptualist formalism that has developed over
the last twenty five years. Just as the earlier works set out to contradict the proscriptions of
Greenbergian formalism, these works set out to contradict the post modernist orthodoxy - they
are not installations but flat square paintings, they contain simple iconic symbolic images of
systems of memory and categories of knowledge and they consciously strive for the
immediate visual appeal of the greeting card, computer icon or directive signage. They are a
shorthand visual language, which mimics instructional signage and the assimilated and
usually uncritiqued advertising logos seen at almost every waking moment in our lives.

So now, the metadiscourse – works about thinking about thinking in an attempt to make
images about the ways we categorise bits of chaos in order to convince ourselves it has
meaning. Milliss has gone from subscribing to various ways of describing the world, where
he’s acted out at least two completely different paradigms of what it might mean to be an
artist, to now being more interested in the overview – in the very activity of trying to describe
the world – an impossible project perhaps, but one in which the exponential capacity of
computer power makes anything seem possible.

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