Robert Milnes’ recent ceramic forms are partially inspired by life under the sea. The undulating and colorfully articulated shapes are not exact renditions of anything specific, but instead loosely suggestive of the often fanciful creatures that populate the underwater. In his standout work Logical Picture, on view at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery in Dallas, we meet a large mustard-colored form laced with topographical lines and indented with repetitive notches. The oddly shaped sculpture elicits associations far and wide; I thought of the grooved structure of brains, the uneven terrain of landscape trenches, and even the ovoid shapes of cookies or perhaps pastries.
Upon closer examination there is a line of text stamped into one of the raised lines running across the surface. Lifting a phrase from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Milnes is complicating our interpretation by pointing a finger toward what’s on his mind as the maker. The text reads, “A thought is a proposition with a sense.” How are we to understand this vaguely brain-like object, considering the addition of this pronouncement from Wittgenstein? The axiom is adopted from a book where the philosopher famously discussed the limitations of language and how we universally attempt to understand our world in and through our use of words and mental pictures. Milnes seems to suggest that the making of art, commingled with the textual reading imprinted on the sculpture, reflects an imperfect amalgamation of an all too human need to demarcate and understand our lives through the construction and use of artificial systems.
If we take as true that a “thought is a proposition with a sense,“ then perhaps an art object is a concrete manifestation of a thought with a sense imbedded? Or perhaps it’s an aesthetic object with thoughts attached. Either way, what seems clear is that we rely on categories and nomenclature to comprehend our experiences. Common everyday understanding is that an object is separate from our looking and speaking something “true” about the observed form. Physics knows better, but that’s a longer story.
It seems to me that our sensual relationship to everything outside our minds is a form of knowing. I know Milnes’ sculpture by letting my eyes slowly examine its surface, its texture, and its odd colors. Maybe I know it with more certitude by trying here to write about it — to place equivalent words to the experience of being in front of the object. Or maybe I only narrate a misunderstanding. All such wonderings arise from Milnes’ work because his art conflates a deep looking with a “logical” framework of functional words. Yet despite all this supposed knowing or understanding of the sculpture, a part of the object remains cryptic.
Recalling Milnes’ stated inspiration of being immersed amongst coral and underwater life, I can’t help but note that there is a comparative silence under the ocean, a quietude that frequently heightens our senses and places us in a kind of rapture of unknowing. When snorkeling or scuba diving, we are tourists to the world below. Perhaps this is akin to making or viewing art. We fumble from a distance to grasp our world and make or talk (or both) as a method to locate our limits or the dark spaces of our understanding. At best, this engenders a kind of humbleness towards our aspirations for certainty. As Wittgenstein also claims, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.“
Robert Milnes: Sea What I Think will be on view at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery in Dallas through July 2, 2022.
Matthew, Thank you for your very thoughtful observations of Robert’s show. Not everyone can tackle the very esoteric, but provocative philosophy of Wittgenstein while discussing an artist’s creation. And that is what the artist asks of us.
And you happened to profile my favorite piece in the show! Thanks again!