Tracy Miller will never be accused of being too subtle. Although there are only five paintings in her current show at Feature, the large-scale, expressive compositions take over the gallery space and immediately engage the viewer. Each piece is on about the same scale, 60-70ish inches, roughly square. The largest composition in this series, Salt Water Taffy, is composed of two of the squareish canvasses mounted together. On the whole, the work is messy, the brushwork "painterly," and the use of color gaudy. Despite their seeming spontanaiety, each work is in fact carefully crafted, with Miller working upwards of a year to bring a piece to completion, and even then she argues they are never truly finished: "I feel like Im still trying to figure out how to finish them-- and that once I find this one missing piece, I could go back into them and fix them all1."
A press release for a show at Jay Grimm proclaims "For [Miller], painting is as primal an act as meal preparation: the manipulation of materials that produce an essential satisfaction2." Calling a Jell-O mold "primal" is a bit of a stretch, but her works do have a decided 'primitivism,' in the sense of they're badly rendered still lifes, which are even somewhat disturbing in their manipluation of scale. Hot dogs and rosebuds are painted many times life-size while each piece retains a somewhat reasonable sense of real space.
Her work recalls Rosenquist's manipluations of advertising imagery, and Miller's setups instantly remind me of those awful (and wonderful) Kodachrome images in the Betty Crocker cookbooks of the fifties, and indeed she uses old cookbooks and magazines for images. The postwar lushness of middle America; the revolting food, tasteless table decoration are there, transformed from merely documentary to fericious and obsessive meditations on midwestern material culture. This culture is familiar to her; she was born in Storm Lake, Iowa, and stayed in that state through college. Even if she works only from photographs, she certainly would have been exposed to a table spread like Lime Whip at a family gathering or the like.
While her paintings represent things, their are also quite abstract in character. In Pineapples, two forms kept shifting in depth while I observed it: a random yellow rectangle and something that could be a red cake mold. These two forms appear like cutouts stuck on top of the rest of the composition, and give this work a feeling of collage or assemblage, even though it's all just oil paint. Salt Water Taffy does much with same thing with the lobster platter.
|Salt Water Taffy, 2001|
If she wansn't painting recognizable objects, Miller would probably be called an Abstract Expressionist, and DeKooning and Motherwell seem reasonable comparisons. Like DeKooning, Miller heaps layer of paint upon layer of paint to build a busy, heavy surface, and like Motherwell in his use of dissonant, collage-like forms, seen in his Mural Fragment of 1950 or the literal collage Pancho Villa, Dead or Alive. At any rate, this back-and-forth beween abstracion and representation is an key feature of Miller's work and this subtle technique removes the otherwise tacky and banal subject matter from the realm of kitsch.
These paintings are richly textured and imagrey that seems random-- a platter of lobsters taking center stage in the composition, for example-- can be interpreted in myriad ways. Perhaps she's attacking the homoginization of postwar culture and the limited role of women in that culture. Perhaps she's celebrating food by conjuring up nostalgic images of the dinner tables of her youth. Perhaps they're just a bit of fun; turning kitsch into art by deploying a high-art abstract style.
Miller declines to comment on whether or not the allusions to the fifties housewife are specifically feminist3, but that could be a reasonable explanation for their ferocity and compulsiveness.
The Grimm press release goes on to claim that her work is created "with the unsentimental directness of the processed, mass-produced food products she depicts," but the complexity of each work, taken with the long time each work takes to produce, shows the opposite, that Miller is very sentimental (maybe not sentimental but emotionally attached in some way) to her subjects and their depiction.
Ultimately, Miller's work is innovative and rich in texture; interesting formally, possibly with 'meaning,' but I think the reason that they are Important is their vivid, humorous (?), sarchastic (?), feminist (?) take on The Betty Crocker Cookbook, Better Homes and Gardens; the reinterpretation of the lifeless and uniform fifties definition of success and beauty in the jumbled, random, assembled/installed post-post-modern artist.