Matthew Miller’s portraits against a black void have attracted a solid following in the past few years. Several New York critics, who seldom agree with each other, have all written with gushing admiration. The openings this month for Miller’s twin shows at Pocket Utopia and C.G. Boerner were packed and crowded.
A head surrounded by black may not sound like an imaginative formula, but the devil is in the details. Miller renders skin in no ordinary way. In “Untitled” (2009) the woman’s skin gleams and glows in certain places while shadows fall elsewhere. It’s a special kind of chiaroscuro and shadow may not be the perfect word for the smokey, misty, shiny darkness on the skin. Falling into the cracks between these worlds makes the effect more fascinating.
The skin’s unique smoke and shine is achieved by several thin film coats of oil paint. It’s a technique with a history that Miller makes his own. But rather than striving towards verisimilitude or hyperrealism, his sensibility with these thin films is more ethereal and stylized. The wooden panel also gives a a warmth to skin colors that white canvas can’t bestow.
Other details are not as developed and delinated as the skin. The pupils in the eyes have no color. The hair looks flat and light does not glow on its strands like the face. It is strange light wherever they are.
The lines can also look uneven. There is a particular jarring difference between the shoulders of the black man in “Untitled” (2011) as well as in the self portrait “Untitled (2009) where it is apparent that Miller painted over the black background to raise up the shoulder line. But there are no accidents when Miller devotes so much time to his work. Some viewers will find these inconsistencies unpalatable but others will fund these visual quirks charming. They would be boring if they were entirely realistic.
The black background has several optical consequences. Looking at “Untitled” (2011), the shadows on the man’s face and hair function like echoes of the black background and it makes the forms pop. The simple black background flattens out the picture plane. The only suggestion of three-dimensionality comes from the figure. It’s like the figure is trapped in a permanent spotlight. Minor details in face, neck, and shoulder can grab the viewer’s attention since nothing from behind competes.
Is this man aware of, choosing to ignore, secretly enjoying, or oblivious to the void surrounding him? It’s an unresolved symbolic question mark in every painting. The face doesn’t give anything away. The existentialists would have adored the ambiguity between the human and the void.
This month, viewers have the opportunity to encounter drawings by Miller that are less familiar to art lovers than his portraits. A series of monochromatic geometric drawings line one wall at C.G. Boerner. “Untiled” (2012) depicts a star comprised of several small sections of black and white. Just as the artist depicts skin as a contrast between several smaller patches of shadow and light, he splits the star into smaller units of black and white.
Pocket Utopia’s entire space is filled with drawings. Miller depicts himself in each of his self-portrait works — of which there are a great many — in a rather similar “headshot” format. Without color, emphasis falls more on his approach to line and shadow. Every crease on his forehead is rendered with such care and it noticeably varies from work to work in the gallery. He looks closely and forces us to lean in towards his works. The longer one gazes at the drawings the more distinct they appear from one another.
Most of the critiques of Miller’s work find fault in the destabilizing fissures in his work, like uneven shoulders, differing levels of detail, or the occasional crudely cut line. Others see these choices as a deliberate stylizations with their own advantages. These inconsistencies subvert the effect of realism. After centuries of harmonious proportioned paintings and the hyper-realism of the 20th century, it’s refreshing to see a work that undermines and casts a shadow on its own sense of realism that varies greatly from one work to another.
Matthew Miller’s Fools Are Those Who Lose Their Mirrors will be on view at Pocket Utopia, 191 Henry, and C.G. Boerner Gallery, 23 East 73rd, until October 14th
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