Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Brooklyn-based Matthew Miller, recognized as an extraordinary figurative painter for some time, recently held an open studio in anticipation of a three-person show in Copenhagen. Included among three paintings slated for display is an unusually complex one for him, magnificent in both its solemn, old-world dignity and its cagey, contemporary fusion of the existential and the “meta.” The untitled piece depicts one of his patented intense bald men holding a painting of himself. It’s particularly interesting that the painting-within-a-painting is almost a first pass – not quite provisional or casualist, but much cruder in terms of color resolution and brushstroke than the rest of the work, which is honed to maximal refinement. Leaving it that way must have been difficult for Miller – his signature has been unflagging meticulousness – suggesting that he felt an aesthetic compulsion to allow evidence of painterly shortcoming, albeit planted, into his work. In the context of his tightly deliberative and methodical process, this scans as a significant shift – maybe even as playful.
“I initially thought it was too goofy and obvious,” he told me, “but it taught me some lessons as I painted it. In a way, that piece could be a turnkey for the rest of my work, portraiture being the subject of my paintings.” While precise composition and pristine execution are the qualities of a Miller piece that catch your eye, it’s the enigmatic expressions and depthless color that hold your gaze and keep your mental wheels turning. The exact content of the emotion on the two faces in the man-holding-painting piece is unclear, but both are plainly concerned in some shared way, the primary one marginally more so than the figure in the painted frame. Maybe that is because the former is notionally the painter and bears responsibility for the latter, who is merely the painted. By that logic, of course, Miller himself would be more concerned than either of them. That peremptory stance, a kind of constructive arrogance, is what keeps the portraitist painting.
If the subject of all of Miller’s work is portraiture itself, he does not approach that work in a preciously insular way that only other artists might understand. He seems preoccupied with the nature and function of perceiving and recording – a basic part of everyday cognitive life as well the painter’s endeavor. Some might detect a certain ghostly coldness emanating from his work, but the quality is really more along the lines of austere concentration. That is what a portraitist has to summon in order to distill an individual’s background and character into a nuanced representation. Subtly connected to this task is Miller’s drive to make the stark black that customarily surrounds his figures as opaque as possible. For a 2012 show of his at Pocket Utopia, I wrote a catalogue essay observing that the black “references something hidden from view but somehow known.” He mused then that one day he would “find the perfect black.” It might be a visual indicator of the figure’s secrets, to which the painter is presumptively privy. If so, the black would also register (by concealment) what the painter were consciously excluding, and more broadly his discretionary ability to edit reality.
That’s an expansive power, and Miller used to get a little prickly when critics and artists restrictively labeled his paintings self-portraits: while most of his figures do look like him, that’s of interest only if you’re familiar with his appearance, which is not essential to the viewing experience. He’s more easygoing about this matter now. Perhaps he is gently conceding, in the spirit of deconstructionism, that the creator and his feelings can never be completely factored out of the meaning of any work of art, having earlier acknowledged some cultural influences of his Mennonite upbringing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. If Abstract Expressionism puts a premium on the artist’s emotions and idiosyncrasies and Minimalism on their absence, portraiture, Miller might agree, rests between the two in a disciplined balance.
Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the black in the man-holding-painting piece. But over time he seems to have become incrementally more focused on what the black encompasses. Several of his new paintings are of different people, and could not remotely be dubbed self-portraits. The other larger piece that will be shown in Copenhagen, inspired by John Kane’s stunning 1929 self-portrait, sticks with the Miller-esque head but does considerably more with it. That painting, the man-holding-painting piece, and others constitute quietly dynamic new work in which human variety, subjectivity, and fallibility step gingerly forward.
“Kurt Kauper, Matthew Miller, and Jean-Pierre Roy,” Gallery Poulsen, Copenhagen, Denmark. Opens September 21, 2019.
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