Saturday, May 7, 2011

Digging Paint

by Stephen Cummings

Ryan Peter Miller, 2010, Stegosaurus

Ryan Miller's a smart ass. (That's Ryan Peter Miller, sorry. Probably a union thing.) When I first saw his work in 2007 I called him Mr. Contemporary Art — whatever that can mean. There was an attitude in the work that set him apart from his then MFA colleagues. On the walls of his open studio hung small panels that took shots at artists and movements and even painting media with the brand of ironic iconoclasm that's proven important over the past few decades. Most prominent in my memory are a Warholian sort of memento mori that turned childish things oddly serious in its poking fun at encaustic paint, and an aggressively blunt poke at — well, if not everything, at least a lot of things. It was funny, and snarky, and maybe a bit much at times, but it stayed with you. All this work was organized into a pair of Ain'ting shows in that and the following year, so you'll probably remember it if you happened to be in Phoenix/Tempe at the time, lookin' at art.

I paid a fresh visit to Miller's studio recently and was happy to see he's still dripping, molding, pushing paint together in ways related to but quite distinct from those Margie Livingston started playing around with — and getting praise for — a couple of years after. These aren't just pretty pictures — well, objects; Miller has more of an agenda, more of an awareness, and more of a sense of humor. One work in progress is half paint half mustard; another casts acrylic as paper. The attitude is out in front in works like these, but the pieces that really caught my eye were slightly more lighthearted: a series of, of all things, dinosaurs. [1]

In this group of panels, Miller is creating images — as opposed to objects with an emphasis on their own objecthood — but he's hardly painting a picture in the traditional sense. Each panel consists of layers and layers and layers of thinly applied acrylic, strata that have been carved into to reveal the visages of these prehistoric behemoths. He's digging for dinosaurs; it's funny. The quality of these super simplified pictures reminds me of postage stamps for some reason — three foot width notwithstanding — but they're maybe more reminiscent of the old game graphics that appeared as primitive lines of color on our early '90s TV screens. That, and the fact that we're looking at dinosaurs, a childhood favorite, takes us back, as the paint takes us literally back into the painting surface, into its own history. Things start to get tangled up quickly in these, maybe part of their appeal, but equally important is that the panels are just gorgeous. The surfaces glisten, milky and tactile, and there's something mysterious and stimulating about those hollowed-out troughs of color, reminiscent in their flickering juxtapositions of the divisionism of Georges Seurat or Chuck Close, an unexpected treat. The paintings were displayed in Chandler last year, so maybe you saw them then, but if you didn't (as I didn't) they're well worth seeking out.

So keep an eye out for Miller; his is a an active mind with a sharp wit. And if he's occasionally heavy-handed in his protests, at least he has the chops to make the experience one to indulge in.

  1. I'm nerd enough that I feel obliged to point out that Pteranodons are not dinosaurs, strictly speaking, but pterosaurs. Please forgive me the use of the catch all.

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