Miles Hall’s recent paintings evoke romance through their depth of surface and fairy tale inspirations. His exhibition at Jan Manton Art is titled Petit Pois (small peas) and includes 34 works, each with up to 20 layers of oil paint built into variously opaque and translucent surfaces. Made during the months of Hall’s Covid-confinement in the French city of Montpellier – where he has lived and worked for six years – their layers echo the narrative in well-known children’s story The Princess and the Pea. Sumptuous abstract qualities are emphasised by their relatively small scale and shaped plywood panels inspired by glazes on Japanese and Korean ceramics.
“As I started making this work in April 2020, we went into confinement, and the paintings became something very different. At their base is the idea of layering. The image is the result of embedded layering and this is where the story of the princess and the pea – the green pea – comes in,” Hall explains. “I always loved the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the 20 mattresses with the pea at the bottom because, in a painting, the underpainting, the first few marks and impressions have a way of coming all the way through and manifesting themselves on the surface.”
Each artwork is constructed with paints that Hall makes from ground pigment mixed with linseed oil and features two small opaque dots on either side in a contrasting colour. These act like anchors (or the princess’s pea), prompting the viewer back from the seductive depths of their surfaces.
“I was escaping Covid-19 by creating these mysterious spaces, a world that is sensual, tactile and fictive,” Hall says. While the dust that filters into his studio in the heart of the city is something he usually tries to avoid, “this time I let it settle, like time and an archaeological layer.”
Hall is Australian born and educated and in 2013 he returned to France to teach at École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Montpellier, where he had completed his masters degree in 2003-2004. While he misses the vitality of the Australian art scene, Europe offers the continuum of history, access to Italian renaissance painting, and exhibitions. “In terms of resource materials it is fantastic here.”
Montpellier’s scene is dynamic, with the unique MO.CO. project that has fused the art school with two contemporary art institutions (La Panacée and l’Hôtel des Collections) under the directorship of curator Nicolas Bourriaud. Students are enriched by visiting artists, curators and collections, and an environment conducive to making. Teaching, for Hall, creates only additional enthusiasm for his own work. “The only difference between the students and me really is experience,” he says.
Gallerist Jan Manton says, “I haven’t seen a better show from Miles, so interesting after a difficult year. There is an object-ness to this work; given their soft curved edges, they sit out from the white wall. Iridescent colours are combined with milkiness within the paint. They are like alchemical relics somehow.
In Petit Pois, surfaces segue into shapes, colours shift and glitter, or vary in opacity like a milky glass. These works are like little windows, portals to a less frenetic world.