Sunday, 6 April 2014
John Miller - brown
Now We’re Big Potatoes, 1992
Born in 1954 in Cleveland, John Miller is a Conceptual artist who is inspired by a corrupted pop-cultural aesthetic. He is best known for his "John Miller brown" sculptures, as well as his more recent assemblages of trash and found objects covered in gold leaf. Miller lives between Berlin and New York, where he teaches at Columbia University. His work was included in the 1985 and 1991 Whitney Biennials, and he has had solo exhibitions at Metro Pictures in New York, Tokyo's Center for Contemporary Art, and MoMA PS1.
In the 1980s, Miller became notorious for his works that liberally employed a shit-brown acrylic paint. The brown paint covered and unified the various objects and materials that constituted his paintings, assemblages, reliefs, and sculptures. So much did the substance come to unify and symbolize his oeuvre that “John Miller Brown” or “J.M.B.” became a trademark of sorts. As Bataille’s bassesse countered Breton’s high-flying optimism, so J.M.B. might be understood as a materialist antidote to the I.K.B. or “International Klein Blue” of Yves Klein’s cosmic monochromes.
These Foolish Things, 1990
The American artist John Miller is often mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries – such as Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, Stephen Prina and Jim Shaw – though his place within this generation is, on the whole, much less acknowledged than that of his peers.
The human desires that can be submerged within the banal are also the theme of Miller’s sculptures and reliefs assembled from found objects on panels and coated with a thick paste-like layer of paint. In recent years, the artist’s signature paint colour, ‘John Miller brown’ (a term coined by critic Peter Schjeldahl in 1990), for which he became widely known in the 1990s, has been partly replaced by imitation gold leaf. Evoking Freudian associations with excrement and money respectively, the brown and gold objects create a strange contradiction: because the mass of shells, swords and shoes are rendered amorphous, we’re compelled to focus on their forms rather than their functions.
Given the climate of angst and obsession that percolates in the art of his colleagues, John Miller's world of brown impasto paintings, reliefs, and sculptures, produced from 1985 to 1994, pop into view as disarmingly happy and full of hilarity. At a safe distance from the emotional spectrum of humiliation, Miller's works resonate at the level of child's play. The body itself, particularly the adult body, with its baggage of psychic wounds and scars, seems to be long gone, apparently the victim of a tidal wave of brown that's mucked everything up, as in Restless Stillness, 1991, which features the remains of a body felled and, Pompeii style, petrified by the stultifying ooze. Presented in a six-foot slab of the hardened crap that looks as if it were cut from a larger debris field, this flashback to utter destruction delivers a vicarious thrill.
Twenty years ago, Miller's work (and the idea of abjection in general) was grounded in theories of late capitalism and could be read as a critique of mass culture and the institutionalization of art--indeed, Miller was among the leading theorists in the art world of the first polemical wave of postmodernism. We may continue to read discourses of disenfranchisement in his work, but today concerns are quite different. Rather than expose the insidious dimensions of commodification, the bent and boom of contemporary art leans in the direction of "youth culture." Hand-made, highly crafted, but kind of crappy, quirky, funny, messy, juvenile, and favoring the goth--the formal aspects of art invested in one way or another with adolescence or childhood show a remarkable affinity with Miller's vintage work. What have kids and critique got to do with one another? On the basis of Miller's brown art, and its generational recontextualization, the question has officially been opened for discussion.