This is Real Life: John Miller’s Crafting of Mediated Vision
John Miller: Here in the Real World at Metro Pictures
January 10 through February 14, 2015
519 West 24th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 206 7100
John Miller: Here in the Real World at Mary Boone Gallery
Curated by Piper Marshall
January 10 through February 28, 2015
541 West 24th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 752 2929
Contemporary society is being constantly “bombarded by images” if the tiresome cliché is to be believed. It’s the cost of living in an information economy in which every moment of every person’s attention has been monetized and commodified. Practitioners of “old” media like painting occasionally invoke this platitude to make the “slowness” of their chosen medium seem transgressive or revolutionary in comparison to our “fast-paced culture.” John Miller, in a two-part exhibition split between Mary Boone and Metro Pictures, takes our attention economy as his baseline and, rather than trying to define himself in opposition to it, plays a game of trompe l’oeil that uses personal and media-sourced images to toy with notions of the materiality of art and the value of human, mechanical, and digital labor.
While Miller has embraced a wide range of materials throughout his long career, painting is the focus of both exhibitions. At Metro Pictures, a series of shaped Dibond panels depicting anonymous pedestrians fill one room: while these pieces may look like cut-out black-and-white photographs from a distance, they are painted in a thin acrylic grisaille that barely hides the artist’s preliminary pencil marks. The figures cast shadows on the walls behind them and seem to float in a featureless void. Carrying shopping bags, staring into space or gazing down at their phones, Miller’s pedestrians present themselves for the gaze of others while simultaneously looking oblivious to their excised surroundings. The pedestrian paintings are an offshoot of Miller’s “Middle of the Day” project, an ongoing endeavor in which the artist takes a photograph every day between 12 and 2pm. While his original photographs aren’t shown in either exhibition, the pedestrians and two murals, one in each gallery space, originate from this larger project.
From across the room, each mural appears to be a black-and-white photograph of a Chinatown street scene (at Mary Boone) or a back-alley loading dock (at Metro Pictures). The originary photographic images have been subjected to heavy manipulation that may not be obvious at a distant glance. Each image has been reduced to flat grayscale shapes, fragmented, and printed on vinyl wallpaper. Pedestrians, windows, and signs have been duplicated and cloned within the street scene: a stretched-out sign repeats the same Chinese characters a half dozen times, while a man and his doppelganger each cross the street with identical strides. One side of each scene is a mirror image of the other, with enough exceptions that this process isn’t immediately apparent (words and street signs aren’t mirrored along with the rest of the image). The mirroring is more obvious in the loading dock mural, which has its reflective axis placed in the corner of the room. The stones and debris on the ground beneath the platform are not mirrored; neither is the graffiti on the otherwise identical walls. Somewhere in there is an image of reality, something depicting the actual world, but we have no way of knowing which fragments, if any, retain that indexicality.
Instead of pedestrians, Mary Boone has a series of paintings of game show sets, depopulated of any contestants and presented as garishly colored stages. Unlike the pedestrians and the murals, these pieces appear to be photographs from afar, and still appear photographic rather than painterly when inspected up close. While the gallery checklist records them as “acrylic on canvas,” they look more like inkjet prints of digitally compressed YouTube screenshots. The twist is that this series was made between 1998 and 1999, several years before such technologies became widely available. Like the murals (which could have been made equally well using a quick Photoshop cutout filter or painstakingly rendered by hand) we have no way of knowing how much (if any) human, mechanical, or digital labor went into the production of these paintings. If the artist and gallery are to be taken for their word, it’s a clever “Mechanical Turk” trick: the paintings look digital but were apparently painted by hand. One piece, Labyrinth I (1999) has a motion-controlled speaker mounted above it that plays the garbled sounds of a crowd whenever anyone walks by. The canvas is rounded on the edges, giving it the shape of an old CRT television set. Labyrinth I could pass for an abstract geometric painting if not for a fragment of a sign, reading “HOME GYM,” a prize that gives the bright colors and curves their meaning as game show stage elements. Despite the dated references to The Price is Right and obsolete televisions, these pieces have aged surprisingly well: they may have greater resonance today thanks to Miller’s apparent prognostication of the explosion of streaming Internet video services that chop up, compress, and reconstitute images without requiring human intervention.
While the technique behind the game show paintings is mysterious, a more recent series of paintings, split between both galleries, offers a more transparent view of the artist’s process with depictions of reality show contestants in moments of apparent emotional collapse. Like the aforementioned cliché regarding today’s saturation of images, denigration of reality TV has become a trope among those who feel their own cultural consumption is above such base programming. A number of artists have engaged this medium without being so patronizing: performance artist and writer Kate Durbin’s book E! Entertainment (Wonder, 2014) consists of scripts, screenplays, and retellings of reality show scenarios written in the deadpan style of a stenographer. Miller’s reality-show paintings deal with their emotionally charged content with a similar detachment. Close-up shots of heads dominate the canvases, looking more like preliminary underpaintings in umber and white than like finished works. Much thinner than the similarly toned pedestrian series, each painting’s grid and pencil marks are visible even at a distance. While many painters strive to cover up their sketches, Miller seems to embrace the honesty of this technique, stripping away figure painting’s veil of naturalism and presenting these paintings as records of his manual labor.
The games Miller plays with manual, mechanical, and digital reproduction disorient the viewer, calling into question assumptions about the ways in which our sense of reality is mediated through the images and programming to which we are “constantly exposed” (to use another cliché). While the grisaille paintings of pedestrians and reality TV stars emphasizes the hand of the artist and his process, the murals and game show paintings disrupt such fetishization of manual labor by making us agnostic to the actual nature of their production. The pieces on view in both galleries bask in the paradoxical history of their materiality and production: some are naked paintings that plainly exhibit the marks of their creation while other paintings may or may not be “paintings” at all. Miller’s games may be rewarding to some and frustrating to others, but the disorientation he channels is the essence of our age: the loss of distinction between fact and fiction, original and copy, humanity and digitality.