Exhibitions | Last Summer


Saturday 10 September - Friday 7 October 2022

In a photograph, Melanie Mills sits in her Wellington living room cradling a pale green teacup in her hands, as if she were holding a small bird. The tea pot holds court on a tray in the centre of the room. Unframed paintings lean against furniture and bookshelves. Punga fronds swoop like signatures across the windows behind her. Armchair, easel, window, woman, pattern, plate, jug.

Let us go into the garden. Katherine Mansfield wants to join us; she is intrigued. We are lying under trees on a summer day. The shade is cool. Someone has sprinkled lime green leaves across the sky and over our eyes. We see purple shadows; the twining arm of a vine, loosed from its mooring. We loosen our clothes, unzip ourselves and smell the moss against the dark black of the tree trunks. Overhead the sky is scumbled. Are we supposed to love sky this much? A breath of summer blue, almost aqua, nudges at a sliver of beige.

A golden umbrella tree glows amidst the darker foliage of pungas and spindly manuka. We are drawn to its other-worldly luminescence, its mystery.

How do you paint light? Or the pulse of life in plants. Or the journey your eye and mind make as they take your senses back through these places, so that your inner skin brushes against leaf and bark and soil sticks to your bare feet. We synthesise and photosynthesize. Colours zing off each other and hum; adjacent contrasts blend and develop not on the canvas, but in our minds. Objects, studied at length, begin to dialogue through space and time. Just as artists do across something described in other centuries as the ether.

‘It is a great pleasure to find awe, and peace in an everyday scene or overlooked corner, and to feel a deep personal connection with nature or objects of culture,’ Mills says.

Through the flickering light on leaves, the ribbons of colour, the artist beckons us to a state close to meditation, where our liminal senses awaken.

Mills was painting en plein air, around Geraldine (her parents moved here in the 1980s), near Talbot forest, amongst a tunnel of trees on nearby Williams Rd, and ‘Beneath Trees by the River’. She was in a garden, ‘by the path’, observing a ‘garden cherry’ and perhaps even the eponymous ‘yellow tree’. She ventured a little further, to Temuka, where she painted the wonderfully titled, ‘Hedgerow, Temuka’.

William Wordsworth, in ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, returned to a familiar and loved landscape after loss, and spoke fondly of hedgerows:

‘The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
these plots of cottage ground ...
Once again I see,
These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines
of sportive wood run wild; ...
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;
But of, in lonely rooms, and in the din of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration...
little, nameless, unremembered,
Acts of kindness and of love.’

Through her painting, one gets the feeling Mills is remembering and honouring.

In ‘Glass Jar and Cloth with Pansies’, the pansies are perhaps of the cloth, but they become almost an abstract wreath. Pansies symbolise loving reflection, the name originating from ‘pensée’, the French word for thought. And although the title mentions only one glass jar, in fact there is another vase, or jar, standing on, or within, the ‘wreath’. There is subtle illumination between the two. A glow which lingers. And the cloth, (not a tablecloth) is perhaps in a state of suspension, almost veil-like, or could it be a cloth of faith.

Again, there’s a note of sadness in ‘Autumn Roses and Bowl of Fruit’. Those roses are autumnal, and there are either petals that have fallen or the petals are in the pattern of whatever is beneath them. The ochre jug, the slightly taller one, looks very much like it has one hand on its hip, in a familiar motherly mannerism. An undulating tablecloth has become the land, as in a Hodgkins’ painting; boundaries are not fixed. But Mills is not just mimicking Hodgkins. Many of the ‘landscapes’ are specific to her, even the jugs – also a feature in Hodgkins’ work - evoke Mills’ locale - with their 1930s Temuka shapes.

‘The difficulty is to be yourself, assimilate all that is helpful, but keep your own individuality as your most precious possession – it is one’s only chance,’ said Frances Hodgkins, quoted in the catalogue of her recent New Zealand retrospective.

Mills is being very much herself, with a nod to her forebears, artistic and personal, taking us to her places of renewal.

- Andrea Hotere, 2022