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 unknowable. 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. 1 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 photographers. 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 industry. 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.