Garry Fabian Miller, whose new exhibition Home Dartmoor has just opened at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, makes photographic artworks without the use of film or digital reproduction. He achieves this by focussing light through coloured glass, often containing water, onto a type of paper known as Cibachrome. In fact, it’s now known as Ilfochrome, after the Ilford company who brought the rights, but many seem to prefer the original name, taken from the Swiss corporation who initially developed it. Cibachrome paper is layered with sealed-in dyes, which are bleached away when exposed to light. This dye destruction, as its known, can be controlled according to the density, duration and colour of the light projected onto it. It’s been used, amongst other things, for the direct creation of prints from photographic slides. Miller uses the paper creatively and poetically, the quality of light particular to different seasons directly connecting his work to the cycles of the year, and to the atmosphere or spirit of a particular place. In his case, this is Dartmoor, where he lives and has his studio. The title of the work Exposure (five hours of light) gives an indication of the lengthy periods involved, which means that the pictures are imbued with a sense of time as well as place.
The works are inspired by the natural landscape of Dartmoor, and Miller’s explorations within it, but they are not directly representational or even abstracted landscape pictures. They open out into a more universal perspective. Indeed, there is something very cosmological about the photographs on display in the main room. For a start, they are made on a very large scale. Seven of them serve to fill the room. They all take the form of circles, the paper pressed behind glass and attached within a black frame in which it seems to float freely, as if the liquid through which the light shone has been somehow contained and hung in impossible vertical suspension. These circles resemble planetary or solar discs set against the black depths of space – an expansion of imaginative vision enabled by the dark night skies above Dartmoor’s elevated and sparsely populated spaces, perhaps. Such associations are encouraged by titles such as The Night Cell and Black Sun. The latter features a deep, black central circle (these shapes created using cut out blinds or silhouettes to blank out light) around which a fiery red corona sends out burning molten eruptions. The Night Cell is a circle of deep cerulean blue pierced by white specks of white luminescence. It looks like a stargazer’s chart, which flattens the dome of the night sky within a circular form. The points of white light, on closer inspection, become less singular, dispersing into small clusters and nebular clouds. The title The Night Cell brings to mind a painting by Cecil Collins, another sometime resident of Devon (he was born in Plymouth and lived for a while in Dartington), The Cells of the Night (1934), which has a similar sense of the continuum between the micro and macroscopic. The blurred edges and lack of sharp definition of the great circle and the smaller ones within suggest a magnified, enlarged vision. The circle could be the circumscribed by the eyepiece either of a telescope or a microscope, looking out into the cosmos or peering into the heart of matter, and finding points of connection and similarity in both.
These two pictures illustrate the division between red and blue in the gallery, which could be seen to represent the balancing forces of night and day, sun and moon, heat and cold, or fire and water. They face each other on opposite walls, heightening the contrast. Of the red works, Forming Enclosure has a black disc set against a dark burgundy background, its bottom half striated with horizontally streaked bands, like a planetary gas giant. These have the quality of searing light shining through cracks in a wall or the gaps in a window shutter, smearing in a blinding blur around the lines of intense luminescence. The disc looks like it’s on the brink of roaring combustion, the gas giant turning into a new sun. Exposure (five hours of light) has a small circle contained within a larger torus, each composed of a myriad points of red light, clustered in areas of greater or lesser density. There is a sense of motion and growth contained within both circles. You can imagine it as a still from a film in which darting phosphor dot activity dances in perpetual motion. The central ‘iris’ seems to pulse out from its solid, central core, which we sense would be composed of further particulate dots if we could magnify it further. At its edges, spiny, regularly spaced cilia probe outwards. The picture is divided by a grid, which centres the inner circle within its own rectilinear frame. This grid makes the glass resemble a giant slide, on which we’re examining a microscopic life form. Perhaps a cross section of a lichen colony scraped from an outcrop of Dartmoor granite. Then again, it could be an exploding star core, a shattering supernova flinging fiery matter across space.
The Night Cell
This red eye stares across the gallery at its calmer blue counterpart, a glowing white torus set against a deep blue background, which exudes a cool, nocturnal radiance. The white circle is surrounded by a lighter, azure blue halo, which slowly hazes into a deeper blue. Edges are blurred and colours seem to gradually transmute into one another in a softly radiant shimmer. This is also seen in the other three blue works. The Night Cell I’ve already mentioned. There is also one which is a soft, hazy azure disc, an aqueous, oceanic world akin to that imagined by Drexciya. Another radiates with a pearlescent, lunar radiance, and is surrounded by a royal blue halo against a night black background, a thin blur of atmosphere like that which limns the curve of the Earth seen from space. Miller talks about the boundaries where two colours meet creating a third colour. This transcendent use of colour echoes that of Rothko’s large scale paintings, pointing also to the very painterly nature of Miller’s photography. He replaces Rothko’s lozenges of contrasting colour with circles, however. Miller has also produced works using rectangles of colour contained one within another. In the short film made to accompany an exhibition at the V&A, Shadow Catchers, of which he was a part, he suggests that for him, the circle represents nature, whereas the square embodies thought – the natural, edgeless form suggestive of recurrence and cyclical pattern against the constructed, containing box which would seek, as in the Exposure picture, and the photographic frames in general, to understand and encompass those circles. One of these rectangular works hangs in the space which serves as an adjunct to the main exhibition, and suffers a little in comparison with the grander works from which it is screened off. It is also seen in the bright light (given a sunny day) of the outside world admitted through the museum’s airy windows and skylights, contrasting with the low, reverent lighting conditions prevailing beyond. A division between the sacred and the rational, perhaps.
The low light in the main room allows the large circle pictures to glow with their own radiance. They almost appear as if they are subtly backlit by some hidden light source located behind the glass. But it is the luminosity of the colours themselves which radiates outwards and draws the viewer’s eye in. Again, Rothko’s paintings come to mind here, with their luminous colours and nebulous, edgeless quality similarly drawing the viewer inexorably inward. The large scale of the work also contributes to this slightly vertiginous sense of falling or being pulled in, beyond the surface. Miller talks of the circles as being transitory spaces, places of disappearing and emergence in which people can lose themselves. They are like huge irises and pupils, reflecting and holding our gaze until we enter a state of rapt mesmerism. The idea of losing oneself in such a work could even encompass the slight problem of the reflectivity of the glass surfaces. With their dark background, the blue pictures in particular tend to mirror the spectator, as well as absorbing other works on opposite walls. This can actually create interesting effects if you choose your angle of vision well. It would be good to be able to judge whether the exhibition would be better served with about half the spotlights turned off, however.
The light-filled room beside the main exhibition space (a kind of anteroom, in a way) has several of Millers smaller-scale works in which he creates photographic impressions of plants. He places them onto a photo-enlarger, and once again shines light through onto Cibachrome paper, creating a direct image through selective dye erosion. The series here date from 2011, the first time he’s used this technique for quite a while. He said that he had been inspired to return to this earlier phase of his work by the beauty (and presumably unseasonable warmth) of recent Springs. He gathered a small selection of bramble stalks from Hayne Downe, and arranged in them with cruciform symmetry. This series of Bramble Crosses is an appropriate sequence for Easter, and reflects a sense of the sacred in nature. The curved blades of thorns radiating out from the stems add further Christian symbolism, as do the small, twinned pairs of pale green leaves sending out new shoots of growth at the base of the torn off branch. The transparent tail of the cutting is like an ectoplasmic skein of the original stem, a ghostly scab of shed skin. But this in turn can provide new growth if planted and nurtured correctly – a form of rebirth. The colours of the bramble crosses are a translucent blend of light greens and umbrous reds, the red tinting the green as if pumping it with the blood of life (although of course the green of chlorophyll is the stuff of life here). These are resonant images, blending Christianity with a Pagan sense of the sacredness of the natural world, and thus perhaps connecting the former with its lost roots. They further reflect Miller’s sense of place with a vegetative emulation of the stone crosses which are an emblem of the Moor’s ancient trackways (and you can see one elsewhere in the museum). Further context to the local specificity of Miller’s work is given by a cabinet containing some of the museum’s collection of flints, gathered and sorted together in a contiguous pile like some stone age jigsaw. This gives a sense of the deep history of man’s habitation on the Moor, and of his interaction with its geology and natural flora and fauna. They were collected by Captain Oscar Grieg in the early to mid-twentieth century, and there are also examples of his annotated plant collections here. Two layers of time placed in close proximity, alongside human time. The geological, shards of rock adapted for use by prehistoric man; and the botanical, plants gathered and studied by a man alive two or three generations ago. Set against the connection of the spirit of place with microscopic and cosmological scales in Miller’s work, it all combines to locate the universal in the here and now, and provides rich stimulation for the imagination and the senses.