New York

Paton Miller

Paton Miller paints odd, melancholy, relentlessly morbid pictures, often featuring an animal—dogs recur—in a dismal human world. Protecting Dog, 1988, makes the point succinctly: the head of a drunken, fallen master juts toward us, while the dog, standing bare-toothed and upright over him, is the true master of the situation. Miller’s human world is one of puppetlike victims, as Public Enemy No. 1 and Red Cat, both 1988, make clear in their different ways. Both feature figures who are victims of unnamed circumstances, yet Miller seems to have no sympathy for his subjects. The Puppeteer, 1988, sums this up in a straightforward, allegorical way that recalls Max Beckmann. Miller’s vigorous, vital animals are more appealing than his devitalized human beings. The artist seems to prefer the animal to the human world, because it is securely instinctual. It is because they are direct and instinctive that Miller’s animals seem especially real within this deliberately strange, mad world.

Strangeness is central to Miller’s pictures. His scenes are flooded with unforced atmosphere, an ingenious mix of smoldering bright and dark colors. Every figure—human and animal, and sometimes mask—is touched, even permeated, by it. Yet for all its gloom, there is so much brightness embedded in the atmosphere that it seems more exhilarating than depressing. It gives another kind of message than the figures and operatic scenes. It is not exactly a message of hope in a scene of despair, but it has an ecstatic character that is independent of the scene, and even seems to transcend the overall ironic grimness and quasi-fairytale irreality. Miller’s painterly surface has a strangeness all its own, one that acts almost as a defense against the strangeness and morbidity of the scene itself.

These pictures make clear a familiar, but often forgotten, point: that the expressivity of a representational scene often depends upon the abstract intensity generated in response to the medium. Without this visionary intensity, representational painting can become a kind of perceptual journalism. It becomes all the more important when the artist is picturing inner rather than overt horror. The achievement of ecstatic abstractness also indicates that the artist is master of the scene, rather than overwhelmed by what he or she is rendering. For the issue is not to render, but to command what is rendered—to make it appear magically upon command, which is what Miller’s version of magic realism does.

Donald Kuspit