New York

John Miller

Metro Pictures

The infant’s first creative act is defecation, and according to Freud the child’s pleasure in producing such a gift is considerable. But socialization, so the story goes, forces the child to transfer the joy of that making into other, more socially productive activities, among them the creation of artworks, an occupation in which the subliminal pleasures of original fecality remains relatively immediate. For some years now John Miller has been making works that attempt to recapture, or perhaps simply point out, just this hidden association.

The centerpiece of his recent show was a series of wall- or floor-mounted sculptures, small tableaux in which the elements—houses, trees, telephone poles—are overwhelmed by heaps of brown stuff that Miller has molded around and among the more familiar models. From the ceiling of the gallery a large globe was suspended, a metaphoric world of shit, upon which tiny brown oil drums sit as curious reminders of more insidious waste products. Occasionally jokes are made: in one case the muddy waste-scape is covered in gold leaf; in another an impeccably polished round mirror shines from the middle of a pile of dung; in a third—somewhat heavy-handedly titled Echo and Narcissus (all works 1990)—a pair of department-store mannequins clothed in brown material gaze at their own reflections before a full-length mirror.

But despite his pointed intentions Miller’s conceptual bent is overshadowed by the dexterity of the installation, and the cloacal aspects of the show seem almost superfluous. Remove the Freudian undertones, as those unsympathetic to psychoanalytic theory will be inclined to do, and the matter from which most of these works are made might as well be mud (in fact it’s painted plaster and papier-mâché), and the sculptures themselves cousins to Richard Long’s hand-smeared circles or Charles Simonds’ earthy villages. Lest we forget the dirty subtext, Miller has included a single text-based work, a pair of offset lithographs entitled Property Values II. Here, a discreet personal advertisement is matched with another, printed beneath it and upside down, in which the requests are graphic and unashamedly filthy.

If taboos are being broken here they are for the most part mild, and our deliverance from them is comic, almost Rabelaisian, rather than tragic. There is an unexpected sort of jollity to all of this, a kind of scatological merriment that gives the lie to the high seriousness of Miller’s theoretical bent. Aside from saving the work from being merely illustrative it’s an attraction in itself; the show participates in sheer, childish pleasures as much as it comments on them.

James Lewis