New York

Melissa Miller

Holly Solomon

In Melissa Miller’s apocalyptic allegories, animals articulate psychic states, existential problems, and, more obliquely, environmental issues. At times death triumphs as in Broken Wing, 1986, in which the fate of a white bird is sealed by its threatening surroundings. In the beautifully painted New Skin, 1988, a vital tiger, as yellow as the sun, emerges from the dark body of a doomed deer—an extraordinary image of spontaneous metamorphosis. Again and again we see the same conflict of life and death forces set in an ominous, haunted, fairy-tale landscape, the morbidity and ecstasy reminiscent, at times, of Bosch. For Miller, catastrophe is the rule, in the midst of which hope makes a dubious, fragile appearance. The pathos of this condition is reflected in the beautiful red roses, already losing their petals, that pour from the mouth of the airborne creature (a hybrid of horse and bird) in Liar, 1990, and in the almost invisible spaceship, lost in the dark background of Night Sky, 1995, that flees the destroyed earth along with various animals, mostly bats. If the natural and the man-made are given equal weight, at odds though they may be, in Day Sky, 1994, in the Temptation of St. Anthony, 1993, it becomes clear that man can never tame nature. The more he tries to do so, the more monstrous and rebellious it becomes. In the lower right-hand corner of the painting, a bird lying on its back on the ground fights off the bird hovering above—its skeletal mirror image. This detail encapsulates the death-in-life paradox that informs all of Miller’s works.

Sensuously satisfying and intellectually subtle, Miller’s phantasmagoria are meticulously executed. Her gestures are at once polished and impulsive, descriptively precise and insidiously allusive. With remarkable confidence and conviction, these narrative paintings achieve an occult, visionary presence. In returning to old master methods, Miller seems to confirm the sentiment, shared by many, that painting—whatever pleasure it gives us—is seriously out of sync with our hypertechnologized society. But what she actually affirms is exactly the opposite: though our technological apparatus contrasts sharply with the human issues her paintings engage, it is never completely outside them. The most telling details out of all her pictures are the fighter planes and airliner in Day Sky and the spaceship in Night Sky. Both works are allegories of flight—the flight of the self in search of survival, for the earth is gone, destroyed by human folly. For Miller, mechanical inventions—technological triumphs over nature—can symbolize the self as much as any animal, and are as ambivalently devilish and angelic.

Miller’s paintings can also be understood as a protest against mechanical reproduction and the threat it poses to artmaking. Indeed, we have begun to recognize that technological advancements are not necessarily as enlightening and democratizing as they promised to be: their major function has been to force collectivization and undermine criticality, as Adorno warned. That is, they have become the instruments of false consciousness, the guardians of a peculiar brand of totalitarianism. Painting can be a weapon against the insidious technological imperative by reminding us—through material detail and imagery—of our subjectivity. Her paintings are a kind of narcissistic rebellion against a society that tends to see the self in terms of the machine, as at best (worst?) what Deleuze/Guattari called a “desiring machine.” For Miller, this denial of nature and human nature is full of dire consequence.

Donald Kuspit