St. Louis Post Dispatch
Artist Miller goes full-throttle, bound for glory
BY JEFF DANIEL
Trains. How odd that artist Jeff Miller has made trains his current subject of interest. Trains move steadily forward along a single track. No diverting down a stray path, no stopping allowed at unscheduled stops. A train departs at point A and arrives at point B. Simple geometry. And simply the antithesis of Miller, 32, whose "Trains of Thoughts" exhibition of photographs and sculpture is currently at Atomic Cowboy in Maplewood. (Photographer Jennifer O'Hare shares the bill.)
Miller, to use just a dash of hyperbole, is the type who thinks at a million
miles an hour and then zooms off in a million different directions. An idea for one creative project inevitably leads into another, and no medium issafe from experimentation by this multiple hat-wearer, who lays claim topainter, photographer, sculptor, conceptualist and performance artist.He has been schooled in voice as well as dance. He's an actor and animprovisational comic. He dabbles in film and video. So the deliberate click-clack, click-clack of the railroad isn't quite the soundtrack that one often associates with Miller. An unpredictable Spike Jones number, perhaps, but not a steady rhythm. But maybe things have settled down a bit for Miller, a lanky ball of energy
who declares - in more of a factual statement than a boast - that "My
mind works so freaking fast sometimes." He has a new Web site that he
uses to exhibit and sell his work. He has a plan to stick to his train theme for the next few years.
Then again, Miller is Miller, so other projects on the back burner may
keep bubbling to the surface. One of these possibilities involves curating a multi-artist show that substitutes old refrigerator doors for canvas. In the wrong hands, something akin to "The People Project," the public art debacle, could result. But one mitigating factor might prevent that from happening: Miller's undeniable talent and originality.
In this case, it's a talent extracted from equal parts natural ability,
education and life experience.
A south St. Louis County native, Miller didn't get interested in art until
transferring to Webster University from Maryville University in 1989. At
Webster, he gave art a try, and it became an obsession. A young
instructor in Webster's Fine Arts department at the time, Tim Liddy (now
at Fontbonne University and one of the area's finest painters), remains
one of Miller's closest friends. Miller and Liddy share studio space in a neighborhood just south of the Hill. Miller spends a good deal of time in the small but quaint working area, often sleeping in the shadow of a table saw or belt sander. He has seen worse. Much, much worse.
For instance, the dirty rats and feral cats that were his roommates during the lean, graduate school days in New York City. While Miller was earning a master's degree in sculpture from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the financially strapped student would lock himself in the depths of that school's art department basement. That is, until the day maintenance workers, seeking to fix the broken pipes that regularly flooded the makeshift abode, cut Miller's padlock and rousted him out. Still groggy, he took his artwork to a nearby public space and made a few bucks with an impromptu auction.
Such a tale says something about Miller's do-it-yourself attitude. It's a
trait he shares with an increasing number of other local artists/arts
activists (Christopher Gustave, Michael Schuh, Crowe T. Brooks, Jenna
Bauer, et al.). Not content to sit around and wait for someone to notice
talent or provide an opportunity, this energetic collection of individuals
just goes out and gets things done.
For Miller, that has meant showing as much as possible - in a variety of
media and in a variety of venues - in the two years since his return to
town: Group shows, individual exhibits, performance pieces.
"I like the challenge of going into venues that aren't expected," says
Miller on a recent rainy afternoon at the Atomic Cowboy, a cafe in the
heart of Maplewood's old business district. He cites a show at a local
Borders Books & Music store as an example. "Doing that was a good learning experience," he explains. "I had to ask 'Who is my audience here?' Some of the stuff I made for that show was somewhat like highly evolved Hallmark cards, but I wouldn't consider myself a sell-out at all. I think you're really a sell-out if you don't try to reach other people, to touch other people's lives.
"People just get off on their own points of view way too much," Miller
adds. "There's just so much disrespect, and I'm sick and tired of it."
Miller isn't always quite so serious - or rankled. He's fond of humorous
word play and gets excited when discussing the movements involved in
physical comedy. And to illustrate his lighter side, Miller even did a turn
as the late Andy Warhol (complete with fright wig) during the final day of
Warhol's "Silver Clouds" exhibit at St. Louis University's Museum of
Contemporary Religious Art. MOCRA director Terry Dempsey, who requested the Warhol impersonation, believes that Miller succeeds in whatever genre he throws himself into. "Even though Jeff is very conversant in the visual vocabulary of the day, his work never strikes me as being derivative," says Dempsey. "He's creating his own recognizable style without hanging on anyone else's. That's to be admired."
MOCRA has three Miller pieces in its collection, including the found object sculpture "Holy Spirit," a piece that Dempsey cites as being
universally well-received. Like "Holy Spirit," a good portion of Miller's sculptural work hinges on that found-object recipe. An old ladder. A concrete pedestal. A weather vane. A model train. What makes Miller's creations stand out is his ability to give new life to the discarded, to rethink the possibilities of something that already has a set purpose. Perhaps credit goes to that "freaking fast" mind, a handy tool, yet one that always has the possibility of becoming a runaway train.
"Jeff is one of the brightest people I know," says Liddy, who has been both friend and mentor to Miller over the years. "The way that things just
come to him is really amazing."
"But, at times, I wish that he would just take the time to slow down for a
bit, to do one thing as well as he can do it. He's good at everything he
tries, so if he focused on one part of his work, he'd be absolutely great."
With his emphasis squarely on trains these days - albeit an emphasis that crosses over numerous styles and media - maybe Miller is finally to a point where he's ready to pump all of his electric current into a single,
solitary third rail. Could be. But one might argue that at least a portion of Miller's appeal as an artist has had plenty to do with his ability to jump the tracks at any moment, to alter the route, to throw on the brake for an unexpected stop. An interpretive dance piece at one turn; a Dadaist sculpture the next. A moody, photographic documentation of local railroad yards might follow.
It's Miller's own variety hour. When he was kid, Miller would spend hours
in front of the television, soaking up the sights and sounds radiating
toward him. He was taking it all in, he now remembers, not realizing at
the time that he was making rapid-fire cultural connections -
connections often influenced by the flick of the channel changer. These
days, Miller rarely turns on the tube. The connections come through his
daily interactions, and those connections now help shape his art.
Jeff Miller is into trains. Might be a short journey. Could be endless. Either way, the best advice is to just sit back and enjoy the ride
Reporter Jeff Daniel
Open Letter to Critical Mass from D.S. Elliot
The exhibition of Jeff Miller's art at Gallery Urbis Orbis
is thoroughly impressive. "Along These Lines" may deal
with the visual presence of
lumbering and creaking trains of transport, but
Miller's work suggests so much more. Miller has drawn
on the substance of America without pretentiousness,
nostalgia, or blind patriotism. The form of his work
draws on a rich tradition of 20th century art, and yet
it is fresh.
Miller's treatment of his theme, trains, is unique and
diverse. His larger paintings have the formal
qualities of work by someone like Franz Kline, but the
sensibility of a graffiti artist in love with his
canvas. His prints and drawings are simple, but not
shallow. There is a playful sophistication in the
marks, both the additions to the paper and the
erasures from it. The photographic works, tucked at
the back of the gallery, are among the most
contemporary. They have the look of surveillance in a
train yard. Miller's sculptures are bold and
unapologetically industrial, and yet they have a grace
and weightlessness about them. I have never seen
someone treat so bold a theme with such sensitivity
Perhaps most spectacular on the night of the opening
was Miller's performance. Miller's art rock ensemble
began their one song assault with a massive wall of
cacophony and noise. My friend, Chris, said to me, "I
feel like I'm standing in front of something very
big." Over the course of a minute or so the noise
settled into a rhythm, the rhythm settled into a
melody on guitar, and then Miller began singing.
Sensitive, pure, and direct is the only way I can
describe the cover of Bjork's "All Is Full of Love"
that emerged. Already a beautiful song, Miller and
friends gave it an original and fitting treatment. I
saw video camera's rolling during the performance, and
I hope a good recording will soon be available for
Looking at the show as a whole, I was reminded of John
Dewey's words on thinking in his discussion of "Having
An Experience." Dewey says:
"Thinking goes on in trains of ideas, but the ideas
form a train only because they are much more than what
an analytic psychology calls ideas. They are phases,
emotionally and practically distinguished, of a
developing underlying quality; they are its moving
variations, not separate and independent like Locke's
and Humes so-called ideas and impressions, but are
subtle shadings of a pervading and developing hue."
To Gallery Urbis Orbis, and to Jeff Miller: Bravo! I
look forward to more art of this caliber in St. Louis.
Even with fine museums and alternative spaces
springing up all around, St. Louis will never have the
art reputation of our smaller neighbor, Kansas City,
unless and until galleries sell the works of our
talented young artists. Keep up the good work.