Melissa Miller

Contemporary Arts Museum

When it comes to a good animal act, humans generally seem to be easy prey. Poodles leaping through hoops, grinning chimps tying trash bags, or rearing stallions kicking their hooves against the jagged profile of the Rockies all trigger responses which seem innate. But our responses in situations where animals are given center stage are guided less by biological memory than by sign systems which have a long history. A mythology of the “secret” language of animals has been assimilated and significantly transformed in the course of a long odyssey from nature to culture. Images of animals serve as tokens that somehow, it is believed, guarantee our transport back to “nature,” Even domestic animals seem to carry this illusory promise.

Melissa Miller’s painterly celebrations of animals seem to be imbued with some of that promise: the expectation that the image-sign-tokens of wild and domestic beasts can be redeemed for a glimpse of primordial truths. This survey, which originated at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and is now on a national tour, covers eight years of Miller’s work. It provides a generous opportunity to examine the impressive development of her formal skills, and the evolution of the work’s content.

Miller took on the role of female Orpheus (one who understands the mysterious language of the animals) by banishing the human figure from her work, beginning in the early ’80s. Her first group of animal paintings was constructed from a narrow range of brushstrokes and an overly saturated palette, the type of hyperchrominance that seems derived from reproductions. In the last two or three years Miller has expanded that graphic vocabulary and broadened its coloration considerably. As a result, she is now a better descriptive artist, capable of producing imposing images such as the fearsome drawing Baboon in Leopard Cape, 1985.

Within her pictorial spectrum there are at least three modes of representation. Most obvious are the fables, represented here by such works as Aesop’s Crow, 1985; Lioness in Zebra Skin, 1985; Owl in Sheep’s Clothing, 1985; and Rabbit Parading as a Fox, 1985. These, as beast fables do, allude to eternal foibles of the human species. A second mode prevalent among the recent works corresponds to the tradition of naturalism within the genre of wildlife studies. Virtually all of Miller’s animals after 1984 are rendered in the manner of natural artifacts, but the resulting objectification undermines the apparent symbolic narrative of the work. The Ark, 1986, the great dioramic centerpiece to this exhibition, indicates a third type of representation, one closely related to the first (fable) yet inhibited by the second (naturalism). This category may be termed allegory. In The Ark, a host of creatures are collected in pairs on a plain before an ominous sky. The conglomeration of lions, sheep, hyenas, eagles, and so on, all variously agitated by each other and the impending storm, have been gathered together not by Noah, but by the artist. The enormous painting is the ark, and the artist is the one who preserves the animals by giving them form and expression. Miller’s forms, however, are more taxonomic than expressive of primordial being; more a reminder of 19th-century positivistic culture than a bridging of the gulf opened up by that culture between ourselves and the increasingly threatened, spiritually remote world of beasts. It is, in other words, an allegory at odds with itself.

Miller works in a genre laden with both the ideology of mankind’s proprietary relationship to the natural world and the weight of received metaphor that so dominates animal signification. Without a critical examination of this cultural force field, Miller’s paintings will remain more or less successful exploitations of existing cultural perceptions—which, in turn, are based on an abiding ambivalence toward nature.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom