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On extracting the essence in oil

Posted on 13 August 2020

On extracting the essence in oil


Joshua Miels in his studio, courtesy of the artist

In conversation with artist Joshua Miels on painting, failure, and the freedom of self

By Kathryn Carter


‘When I discover who I am,’ American novelist Ralph Ellison once wrote, ‘I’ll be free’. Such awareness may, at birth, be innate. But in the context of cultures that encrypt our own stories, the knowledge of your nature often requires relentless inquisition—a style of self-inquiry made unnecessarily complex by the pressure to conform to seemingly endless societal expectation. The self, it would seem, is no longer, if it ever was, a simple thing to be. To pretend, in the world we live in, often more practical than to be the pure you. In the presence of art, however, we find freedom to feel into the parts of ourselves that have been filtered. In the shadow of paintings, we experience the stillness we need to shed the veils that obscure the core of our being. 

A portrait painted by Joshua Miels is never just a picture. It is a catalyst for an inquisition that calls for the dissolving of masks subconsciously made in the pursuit of societal—as opposed to self—acceptance. Born and raised in South Australia, the contemporary portrait artist produces pieces that strip back the personas presented by his subjects, capturing the vulnerabilities and emotions that have been hidden for the sake of seeming to be a certain kind of person in a particular kind of way. Painted predominantly in oils, each piece begins with one person and ends with stories told by the observer, tales that take them not into the subject, but back into themselves. 

Shattering the veneers we spend lifetimes carefully-crafting, Miels extracts the essences of his subjects in his multi-layered oils, presenting us with portraits that challenge us to carve into the culturally-constructed guises that smother the core self. ‘What and how much had I lost?’ Ellison once questioned, ‘by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?’ When we stand with a work of art by Miels, questions such as these inevitably arise in a way that feels deeply necessary. By facing what we may have lost, we grant ourselves permission to pursue what must be found. To look within is to know, and to know oneself is to be free. 

‘Silent Anger’ by © Joshua Miels, courtesy of the artist 

KATHRYN CARTER: Can you remember the first time you picked up a paintbrush? 

JOSHUA MIELS: The first time I remember painting having a significant meaning in my life was in high school, in grade 10, when I painted my first portrait in oils. I remember the rush of creating something unique. It wasn’t the greatest painting, in fact it was quite average, but it developed a hunger inside of  me to get better. Painting was an opportunity to escape the world around me, and to get lost in the creative challenges that every brushstroke presented. 

Did you always, from those first experiences with oils onwards, have a feeling you’d end up an artist?

I actually never thought I’d become an artist. I grew up with the misconception that you could only earn money as an artist when you were dead, this mindset threw me onto another creative path working as a graphic designer. After graduating from high school, it took me 7 years to finally bring out the oil paints again. 

And when you reconnected with painting did you study visual arts at university, or did you learn by following your own intuition?

I studied visual communications (graphic design) at university which helped me to develop the way I approach my art, but my style has been developed by teaching myself. I first drew my inspiration from many great artists, initially trying to replicate their styles to unlock their secrets. I learnt something from every artist that I studied, and I then used those lessons to create a style of art that was unique to me. 

You’ve certainly mastered your own aesthetic, a piece by you is definitely identifiable by style alone. Now that you have such a strong artistic voice, is there anything that you are trying to say with your painting?

To be honest, I’m not trying to say anything specifically to any person. I really want my works to resonate with the inner thoughts of the viewer. Over the years my exhibition works have often explored men’s mental health. I grew up with a father that struggled with addiction and mental illness, and it’s this exposure [to issues of mental illness] that shaped the person that I am today. Unfortunately, my story is all too common. So many families have had to deal with addiction, anxiety and depression. 

‘How much for cash’  by © Joshua Miels, courtesy of the artist 

It’s heartbreaking, but you’re right, it’s so true. Your willingness to explore that unfiltered human reality has clearly shaped your work over time, with many describing you as a contemporary portrait artist who looks to capture the vulnerability of people and the emotions that people try to hide from others. What first fuelled your desire to reveal the more secretive aspects of your subjects?

My interest in this subject matter was brought about by trying to make sense of the childhood that I grew up in. My father suffered mental health and addiction for as long as I knew him. He was extremely good at changing his persona when out in public, but as soon as he was behind closed doors the life in his face disappeared. Working with this subject matter I realised that we all portray who we want to be when we’re with others but when we’re alone, for many, that [constructed] identity shifts to who we really are. No one should feel ashamed of who they are. There are times in which we need to shift our identities, whether it be at work, or with family and friends. However, if one completely removes or hides who they are, a person can never be truly happy. 

I agree, it’s almost a sacrifice of self in the name of acceptance, which could be described as a betrayal at almost a soul level. Even so, as you’ve mentioned, we do live in a time where many must wear metaphoric masks so as to go on living, whether hiding a part of themselves for the purpose of fitting in, or because they risk condemnation—cultural, familial, political—in revealing who they truly are. Given this reality, how do you work to peel away the personas your subjects may have artfully created for themselves?

We all carry [and wear] masks subconsciously, without even realising it. These masks are often needed for acceptance by particular groups we may be associated with at any given time, but our true identity can be vastly different from the identity that we portray to others. In society, we all strive for love and acceptance and will go to great lengths to attain this. For this reason, people hide their sexuality, religion, race, personality to fit the mold that society tells us to be.

In my works, I look to paint the face vacant of emotion. Not a happy face or a sad face, just a face. We often don’t take time to see a face without emotion. When the face is stripped of emotion it allows the person to be seen for who they are. There is beauty in all faces brave enough to be a subject in one of my paintings. With every subject that I paint, I can feel the vulnerability of them as they step in front of the camera. I too feel vulnerable when taking these shots as it’s a very personal thing to be trusted in painting someone’s face.

‘Dare to Dream’  by © Joshua Miels, courtesy of the artist 

Do you feel a part of your role as an artist is to allow people an artistic environment where their true selves can be seen more safely, without the fear of judgement?

I certainly want people to be more accepting of one another’s differences. We are all individuals, and this must be celebrated. Yet when we allow people to see us for who we truly are, we sometimes open ourselves up to exclusion and persecution. It’s this fear of not being accepted [by others] that drives people to continue to wear the masks they do in their daily lives. 

You can often sense that others are somehow veiling themselves. To do so over extended periods of time is what often leads to inner disconnection with the core of who we are. Do you feel the desire to be seen as a cookie cutout of a perfect person—such as a social media influencer—is what drives us to (often subconsciously) hide who we really (imperfectly) are?

Social media, and the general media, continues to show you where your life is deficient; it reminds you that you may not have the perfect family, house, car, job, face or body. It’s our exposure to these mediums that I believe risks the continuation and increase of mental health issues and low self-esteem in future generations. 

But if we can promote a greater acceptance of difference, we will allow people to be happier and more confident, and at ease with showing people who they truly are.

‘The Collector’  by © Joshua Miels, courtesy of the artist 

Further to the point of showing who we are. Portraiture has existed in the West since ancient times, with many famous pieces created during the Renaissance. During these periods in history, to paint (sculpt or draw) somebody was the only way of recording a person’s appearance. Since the advent of photography, the art has become less prominent. What role do you feel portraiture plays within the fabric of contemporary society?

I think photography has completely oversaturated our minds, whereby the importance of those moments captured feels far less [apparent]. I have a son and daughter and since the days they were born their lives have been documented through thousands of photos. When I was a boy, conversely, there were maybe fifty photos taken of me in my first ten years of life. Each photo is a memory and a moment in time. I think that portraiture may be [now] where photography was twenty years ago, it seems to [more consciously] capture the moments in time that photography now [often] fails to do.

In his book Thérèse Raquin, French novelist Émile Zola writes: ‘They dared not peer down into their own natures, down into the feverish confusion that filled their minds with a kind of dense, acrid mist.’ Do you think a part of your process could be described as peering into the natures of others?

I want my works not to be peering into the natures of others, but peering into the nature of the viewer. The works project a reflection of the viewer back onto themselves. The face may be different, but the feelings are the same. If a person looks to search for the why within my works, they will find themselves questioning themselves on who they are and what they might be holding back due to the fear of not being accepted. 

For a painting to prompt this level of self-inquiry is such an essential thing, arguably now more than ever. Speaking of questions and inquisition, how has embracing the process of experimentalism allowed you to grow as an artist?

I’ve never been completely satisfied with the art that I produce. Experimenting, for me, delivers a great sense of excitement, one which is born through the risk of failure. When it doesn’t work out it is disappointing, yet I learn so much from every failure, and I use these learnings as the springboards for my next ideas. When an experiment pays off, I feel a great joy and excitement, even if the resulting painting isn’t as well received as some of my more iconic work. Experimenting is, for me, like my own personal journal. The works created by the process of experimentation are therefore, in a way, more personal.

‘Supremacy’  by © Joshua Miels, courtesy of the artist 

Given you continue to develop your technique via the thrill of trial and error, what tools would we find scattered around your studio, in terms of brushes, palette knives, etc.?

In my studio you will find a range of palette knives, some cheap and nasty brushes, and hundreds of tubes of oil paint—the usual. Some of the more unique tools you’ll find are: business cards I use to paint with, milk crates I used as my easel, and an old window that I use as my palette. You’ll also find venetian blinds; I use these to scrape paint to create the backgrounds for my pieces. 

Love that, the tools of the painting trade are never standard. I know that you work mostly with oil paints, but do you ever experiment with any other mediums?

Oil paint was the medium that I used in high school, and from the moment I first used it  I was addicted to its flexibility. To be honest no, I don’t work with a lot of other mediums. Most of what I’ve learnt through experimentation has come from what I can do with oil paint. 

The experimentation at the root of your practice seems symbolic of your own evolution as an artist, a journey that has required the recognition of emotions both in yourself and others. That can’t have always been easy, given we exist in a world that has mostly taught us—directly and obliquely—to “stay strong” and to perpetually “hold our heads high”, regardless of how we may feel inside. Your work, conversely, exposes and allows for the vulnerability within your subjects to not only hold space, but to strangely thrive, as though protected from the harshness of the real world within the painting’s oil veneer. Why is shining light on this part of the self so important to you, not only as an artist, but also as an individual? 

I have to believe, regardless of the adversity I face, that I can get through this. I have had my own mental health battles in which I had to question whether or not I could continue to practice art. At one time I was overcome by fear that, at its extreme, was paralysing to me, where for several months I was unable to paint. Not wanting to live by my fear, or succumb to it, I knew I had to continue even though at times it was extremely uncomfortable to do so. We will all go through adversity and when it hits it can be devastating, but we must not give up on ourselves.

Joshua Miels by © Mike Smith

Your strength is inspiring, and one that has clearly kept you on your path both personally and artistically. Speaking of the path of the artist, today individuals who study visual arts are sometimes encouraged to pursue specialties in the digital realms—to increase the likelihood of finding work in an ever-digitised world. What would you say to someone who truly wants to work with more traditional mediums, but who might be too nervous to pursue an “old school” craft?

I think that there will always be a market for fine arts, but it is a hard profession to break into. I think it’s important not just for an artist but for anyone in the world in which we live to have a range of skill sets. For myself, I’m also a graphic designer who specialises in designing supermarket products, and I’m also currently studying to be a teacher. Having these additional income streams allows you to take artistic risks without risking not eating for the next month if those risks do not pay off. This is not something many artists want to hear, but for me this approach has proven successful, and it allows me to pick and choose the jobs that I take on. 

Compromise is something a lot of artists have to become at peace with, I think, but it’s worth it in the end. I’m curious to know one final thing. If you could commission one artist—living or deceased—to paint your portrait, who would that artist be?

I think if I could have any artist paint a portrait of me it would be Jenny Saville, Her artworks have always been a driving force in my own artistic practice. 

You can explore the work of Joshua Miels at joshuamiels.com

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