SANTA MONICA, CA.- Greg Millers paintings make me aware of time. And of some of the various ways that time can affect the experience of art. And the content of art. All art takes time to make, of course, but with some like that of Minimalists Brice Marden and John McCracken, two Miller faves, as it happens a sense of the time that has gone into the making can actually become a palpable part of the work. So it is with Miller.
Then theres your time, the viewing time, because Millers paintings are not the retinal equivalent of Easy Listening. Think of such painstaking picture-makers as Hieronymous Bosch who did not make images you get in one go but stuff that requires a degree of all-over scrutiny before they deliver their charge. Millers work requires that degree of attention too.
But theres quite another quality of time in Millers work: Historic time. And it is when he channels this that Miller is at his most American. Or lets zoom in closer here Western American. And I write this as somebody slightly familiar with West Texas, the Texas of the cattlemen, not the oilmen, and extremely familiar with California. And of how real a presence history is in the American West.
This seems especially striking to somebody who grew up a Londoner. London is not exactly short of history but London natives contrive to ignore it almost entirely, even or particularly during such significant events as Golden Jubilees. Like the Tower of London, history generally is for the tourist industry. Indeed a once hugely popular book of humor, 1066 And All That, was built around the notion that 1066 and 55 BC were the only two dates that Brits remembered. Now both book and dates have mostly been forgotten too.
Not so, the American West where I have sometimes been startled to find how in your face history can be. As when a guy observed to me that his great-uncle had been shot by Native Americans, and that the arrowhead was in the Cowboy Hall of Fame this was in West Texas or when I found myself and this was in Arizona being driven through an all-wood town, now inhabited by paleo-hippies, themselves relicts of times fairly long-gone. It becomes unsurprising to hear that such-and-such a formerly famous desperado had spent his last years trying to score parts in the first cowboy movies.
This is familiar terrain to Greg Miller.
People came from all over the world for the California Gold Rush. There was a great mix, lots of Chinese, he says. I grew up part-time on an old ranch in Truckee, California, and part-time in Sacramento. I grew up during the 60s. The old Beatniks were still around.
He grew up, feeding on such Lost Times.
I drive around the Western United States. From Marfa, Texas, to New Mexico. The old Badlands. And from that I take the material I work with.
There was this outlaw place in South West Texas where these roads meet up, Miller says. It was kind of based on the old Santa Fe trail. When people came from the East they would decide where to go. And it was kind of like with the Blues where that Robert Johnson challenged the Devil. It was here the roads made four corners which I kind of liked. Painting them is an interesting metaphor for a bunch of things.
The way Miller has painted them is appropriate too.
I didnt go back to Venice and Florence and entrench myself in ancient frescos. I havent even been to Europe yet. Im over here. And that is what my work talks about.
Miller does immerse himself in frescoes and they are old, but not precisely ancient. As much as the early Pop artists, as deeply as Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Rosenquist and Andy Warhol, he is enthralled by posters. But American Pop was, by and large, cool, hard-edged. Yes, there were elements of nostalgia, inescapably, as with any form that uses mass-media and ephemera as material, but that nostalgia was cut by irony of industrial strength. What Miller is doing with this material is wholly different.
When I would see these posters it was like I was looking at an Italian fresco, Miller says. And theres a history behind each poster on the wall. And so I would take that and put it into my work. I could see a sense of history and time. Abstract time. I could see that were kind of visitors because were not of that time necessarily but Im recording it and Im painting it. And thats where the energy comes from.
He paused, added.
You drive by on a trip and look at that stuff and it goes by so fast. Its sort of like Im driving in a car and there are ghosts flying by my window. - Anthony Haden Guest