Art

Reading a Drawing Without Labels

Dan Miller "Untitled (blue 'ON' and yellow with graphite)" (2011), acrylic and graphite on paper (all images courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery)
Dan Miller “Untitled (blue ‘ON’ and yellow with graphite)” (2011), acrylic and graphite on paper (all images courtesy Ricco Maresca Gallery)

Dan Miller has created some of the most glorious work that I’ve seen in a long time. His current show at Ricco Maresca Gallery is a collection of works on paper that draw you in, deep into their rich and layered surfaces. Strong, intense directional markings vie with big loopy “faux” writing. Occasionally a word or letter pops out. In the painting “Untitled (peach and gray with graphite)” the word “lied” shines out from the left side. This one word sets an entire narrative into motion. Who lied? What lied? Are paintings lies? The rest of the work is a tantalizing tangle of line and color. I’m drawn in, trying to find more words; the shapes tease. Maybe it’s a word, maybe it’s a painting of a word, maybe a line and nothing more.

Dan Miller, "Untitled (Lumber)" (2014), typewritten text on paper, 11"x30"
Dan Miller, “Untitled (Lumber)” (2014), typewritten text on paper, 11″x30″

These are masterful works that do what I think every artist hopes to achieve. That is, each is a perfectly contained world, with an intense and consistent inner logic. It’s an idiosyncratic and personal logic, but it holds throughout all of the works in the show. The pieces have structure and layer upon layer of marks to “read.” The artist has created a world that challenges us to crack the code and enter. One can read them as simply beautifully composed abstract paintings or as work that seeks to comment on issues of format and narrative.

The quality of mark upon paper varies from those the width of a hair to big sloshy stokes of paint. There is tension and drama between these marks, which give the paintings and drawings a great sense of energy. Miller’s color tends to be cool — silver blues, graphite and grey, punctuated with an occasional splash of yellow or green.

Most of us who write about, think and talk about art try to connect the work or the artist with precedents in art history or with the artist’s contemporary peers. We seek a construct, a hook to hang the art on, as a way of understanding it. This reflex fulfills a human need to categorize, to put art into context, to compare and contrast, and somehow enrich the work with its off-canvas back-story.

Occasionally — and delightfully — one finds an artist whose work is so original, so fresh, and so self-contained as to defy easy classification or precedent.

Dan Miller, "Untitled (light pink 'R' and white on black)" (2011), acrylic on paper, 40"x50.5"
Dan Miller, “Untitled (light pink ‘R’ and white on black)” (2011), acrylic on paper, 40″x50.5″

So here’s the part I haven’t mentioned yet. Dan Miller is on the spectrum of autism and lives with few verbal communication skills. He makes work that is truly its own world, his artwork is his primary form of self-expression. I mention this fact last because so often we need to “label” in order to understand a work of art. Miller’s work deserves to be appreciated and understood on its own terms rather than through a lens.

Installation view of Creative Growth: Dan Miller exhibition at Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York
Installation view of Creative Growth: Dan Miller exhibition at Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York

So what do we do when an artist is working in a sealed universe of his or her own making, one with no art history, and no hook with which to contextualize or prejudge the work? Enjoy the fresh voice of a talent that transcends language, back-story, or label. Look. Closely. And leave it at that.

Creative Growth, Dan Miller is presented at Ricco Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 3rd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan), in conjunction with Creative Growth, Oakland, CA, until December 6.

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