New York

John Miller

Metro Pictures

If a child smeared a handful of feces on a wall by his crib, his parents would have to be pathologically esthetic to try to interpret the “work” that resulted. Of all the bodily functions, defecation is the most taboo in our culture. The Marquis de Sade was perhaps the first intellectual to study its possible meanings, although quite a few artists since have referenced it on occasion to make superficial, usually comic points. Back in the ’60s, Piero Manzoni sold his feces in cans as art (at least, that’s what he claimed; to my knowledge, no one who bought one has ever opened it, although a few of the cans reportedly exploded). Lately Francesco Clemente has painted defecation as a mystical though still quaintly shocking act. In John Miller’s latest show, excremental imagery served as a kind of intrusive presence amid recent Conceptual art’s confectual dynamic, a genre whose style he appeared to adopt but whose party he definitely crashed.

This gallery’s looming space tends to foil all but the most gigantic works. Miller solved the problem by declining to play its game. Instead, he left great swatches of wall bare around a tight array of pieces that used the cohesive, utilitarian look of a suite of furniture to structure a lot of disturbing internal rhyme. On one wall, a large, smudgy, brown acrylic painting of a Las Vegas marquee announcing Andy Williams and the Lennon Sisters at Caesar’s Palace was flanked by two same-size works that are almost impressionistic in their equation of painterly abstraction with nature’s disorderly presence. Across the way, three almost square mirror works, each smeared with brown paint, gave viewers mock-nauseating headdresses. In a fourth mirror piece, viewers’ bodies were blocked out by four wood-framed panels filled with brown matter that Miller had propped against its entire lower half. Out in the middle of the room, two globes mounted on generic raw wood stands were lathered with a thick paste, one in worthless brown, the other in valuable gold.

Closer to the floor the works were an even “shittier” color. One little sculpture, Pathetic Grouping, 1988, the only titled work in the show, consists of four small romantic or religious figurines, their heads and upper torsos encased in “feces.” The group is pathetic twice over—as an attempt to evoke viewers’ sympathy, and as a makeshift john. Also on the floor were 12 rectangular wooden units that resembled very flat planters, just like the mirror piece’s panels. A hard, shallow brown material filled each. Here the image was as much earth as excrement, but the only thing sprouting in these units was the carefully sculpted Pollock-like surface of the material. This sly, almost invisible comparison of high art’s high points to a kind of depraved doodling was typical of Miller’s knack for complicated black comedy.

In a statement that accompanied the show, Miller explained the work in part as an attempt to trace his “own sense of things,” which he saw as coming from “a tacit set of conventions” or “common knowledge,” back into “irreducibly heterogeneous form, completely devoid of all refinement.” But because he is such an elegant draftsman, the effect couldn’t help being a little head-swimming. At best, the elaborate infra-art critique that Miller’s project intends bobs on the surface of this “beauty” the way subliminal messages supposedly did (or do) in the moody layout of liquor and cigarette ads. While he may not be the first heady artist to take this brand of elite premise to a poetic extreme, he is one of the valuable few to describe art, however ironically, as a by-product of a specific intellect and body rather than as the usual Debordian alienated product.

Dennis Cooper