Jennifer Keeler-Milne returns to painting in Autumn & Spring

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Please note: due to NSW COVID-19 restrictions galleries in Sydney are currently closed.

Taking advantage of the slow pace of life in lockdown, Sydney-based artist Jennifer Keeler-Milne walked to her studio each day. While walking, she was taken by the piles of leaves crunching underfoot, their autumnal colours vibrant against her path. Gathering handfuls, Keeler Milne took the leaves back to her studio where she inspected them more closely.

“The form and texture of the leaves really appealed to me,” explains Keeler-Milne. “Now looking back, I feel that they represented our weathered selves, that feeling of the unknown we were faced with last March. We weren’t looking very far ahead. At the time, it felt like enough to take on – just one leaf.”

An artist whose prior work has consisted of meticulous charcoal drawings of sea urchins, desert plants and feathers, it is clear that Keeler-Milne is drawn to texturally unusual forms in nature. When collecting leaves she had recently returned to painting after nearly a decade of working with charcoal almost exclusively.

Twenty paintings make up the exhibition, Autumn & Spring. Basing her recent output on seasonal changes, Keeler-Milne employs the vivid colours of oil paint to depict the contrasting natural forms of autumn leaves and wattle blooms.

Jennifer Keeler-Milne, Spring wattle II, 2021, oil on linen, 92 x 198 cm.

“Because it was autumn when we first started going through Covid, I chose to paint the leaves with warm golden tones like burnt sienna and earth colours,” Keeler-Milne says. “It’s a very intimate view.” Painting the leaves as single objects on flat backgrounds, Keeler-Milne highlights their exquisite decay in detail. While some have deteriorated down to feathery cobwebs of veins stubbornly held together by a spine, the way Keeler-Milne has manipulated colour, texture and shadow still suggests life. Within these intimate studies of pattern and line, one can almost see a vision of the forest canopy, dappled sunlight filtering through the treetops.

A few months later, Keeler-Milne began to paint representations of spring, completing a small collection of charcoal works depicting the fuzzy pink buds of callistemon and the splayed skirts of corymbia blossoms against black backgrounds. Other paintings show sprigs of fern, their green foliage a contrast to the rusty brown of the leaves.

Jennifer Keeler-Milne in the studio.

Bright plumes of wattle flowers began to dominate her canvases with varied shades of brilliant yellow. Recalling earlier preoccupations with light, Keeler-Milne reveals that one painting in particular rejuvenated her love of painting.

“When I came back to using paint, I pulled Wattles Light, 2010, out in my studio and looked at it as a little bit of a touchstone to remind myself how I used to paint. It took me a year to come back to love paint again, to get used to using a brush instead of a piece of charcoal. It’s about matching the paint with the subject, and what you’re trying to say about it. The wattle colours are so intoxicatingly joyous, it’s hard not to enjoy the process.”

Autumn & Spring: Recent Paintings
Jennifer Keeler-Milne
Australian Galleries – Roylston Street
22 June – 11 July

Briony Downes