Not once but twice, the artist John Miller has left and returned to the downtown Manhattan neighborhood where he currently resides. Following 9/11, he and his wife, the artist Aura Rosenberg, decamped from their Battery Park City apartment to the Upper West Side, only to move back about a decade later. Then, in the wake of COVID, the two left for Berlin, returning to Manhattan after almost a year. Both exits resulted from what the artist called "cataclysmic events that struck New York," and both times, Miller returned to find an area that had taken on a different shape. The shifting textures of the artist's neighborhood provide the jumping-off point for both Civic Center, Miller's current exhibition at Maxwell Graham / Essex Street and the selection of his work featured at the Independent Art Fair
Miller's contribution to the Independent will include works from his pedestrian series made over the past decade, a suite of cutout acrylic-on-Dibond paintings based on photographs. These works feature deadpan depictions of people who you might find walking downtown: a teenager listening to headphones; a man talking on a cellphone; a woman pushing a stroller. These figures, however, look more like freeze frames from a surveillance apparatus than subjects of traditional street photography. "There's something about everyday-ness that interests me," the artist recently told me during a tour of his current show. For almost 30 years, Miller has maintained a daily practice of taking photos between noon and 2 p.m. These midday images provide the central connective tissue that runs throughout Civic Center and the selection at the Independent.
Miller was born in 1954 in Cleveland, Ohio. In the 1970s, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design and then grad school at the California Institute of the Arts. In 1986, Miller began to show what he described as "brown impasto works that were supposed to connote excrement without realistically looking like it." He made these works with synthetic materials. As such, more than anything else they suggest the unconvincing brown of a joke-store gag item. Yet they would come to define the artist's output over the next decade.
Miller's signature brown impasto trope reappears in the paintings and reliefs at Maxwell Graham / Essex Street. The artist explained that these paintings signal a "return to the earlier works, reimagined as public sculpture." In State of Exception (2022), Miller digitally inserts a form reminiscent of his 1987 piece The Horrible Negation into a photo of unassuming Chinatown storefronts. This gesture implies an alternate reality in this piece wherein his early brown paintings are resurrected as diminutive public monuments. He references other older works throughout the show, on both the wall and the ground. One circular rug piece, O, recalls Brown Eye (1987), which the artist meant to suggest "both an eyeball and an anus."
Elsewhere, photos are cut, collaged, and fitted with mirrors and more brown paint. Still Life, the only piece that doesn't get an additional component, depicts a police barrier resting on a brick wall. "Battery Park City has the highest concentration of public sculpture of almost anywhere in the world," Miller told me. "After 9/11, this made me think of the profusion of police barriers as unconscious public sculpture." The exhibition's centerpiece is Civic Center (2022), a four-minute Powerpoint presentation combining image and text. This title also designates the Lower Manhattan district that contains City Hall, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, and One Police Plaza, recently a hotbed for activist demonstrations. Miller's Powerpoint flashes photos of NYPD vans, police barriers, and Verizon stores, raising questions about the nature of photography, community, and democracy.
Although Miller's contribution to the Independent includes no brown works, there is one gold work, Nonrelational Organization (2007). It is a simple table topped with everyday objects, including a gun and two television remotes, entirely covered in gold leaf, a material the artist started working with in the 1990s. "That was a self-parody in a way," Miller said, of his gold works. "Gold is the opposite of excrement; Freud says the two are interchangeable in the unconscious."
Miller's current solo exhibition and contribution to the Independent offer a glimpse into a much larger body of work, one that for over four decades has danced around and at points intersected with major moments in contemporary art. Miller has been included in two separate Whitney Biennials; he was early on the roster at the deeply influential gallery Metro Pictures; he is a professor at Barnard College/Columbia University; his criticism has appeared in Artforum, October, Texte zur Kunst; and last year, he collaborated with the fashion brand Balenciaga.
Like many of his contemporaries, Miller's work often deals with the detritus of popular culture–game show sets and mannequins used as sculptural objects; reality TV stills deployed as fodder for paintings, personal ads. Unlike many of his peers, though, Miller approaches this source material with a kind of poker face, which allows for his work to slip into a more elusive tonal arena. "It's funny, my daughter once commented on my photos, to say, 'Oh, they're supposed to be unremarkable,'" Miller said. "I suppose in some ways I guess that could relate to a kind of dandyism, the Beau Brummell version–being so well dressed that somebody doesn't notice. You would have to know something to be able to see that."
When talking about his relationship to traditional modes of photography and painting, Miller noted that, to be considered seriously, "you have to love the paint or you love the photo." Miller recounted a story about an application letter that he submitted during the end of his teaching appointment in the Yale University Sculpture Department. There was an opening in Yale's Painting Department. Miller, who had made plenty of paintings in his career and had served on academic committees with the school's painting professors, decided to give it the old college try. "I wrote this kind of lighthearted application letter that began with, 'Surprise! Now I'm a painter,'" Miller said. "And I just got a form rejection that the department head didn't even bother to sign," he continued. "So, I took that to mean, 'you're not a painter, and don't even joke about being one.'"