New York

John Miller

Metro Pictures

Scatological humor is probably as old as culture itself—but in art of the ’80s and early ’90s, jokes about excrement proliferated, provoking a lot of nervous laughter. RUN FROM FEAR/FUN FROM REAR—that’s one of the ways Bruce Nauman put it. He also paired clowns and toilets to flush out the complexities of pleasure, pain, and self-consciousness that rim the act of evacuation. Remember Mike Kelley’s 1987 felt banner that blared PANTS SHITTER AND PROUD P.S. JERK OFF TOO, or the video Heidi, 1992, made with Paul McCarthy, that featured sausage turds and a sustained involvement with defecation? McCarthy’s performances take us to the compacted core of identification with disgust that, in turn, is linked with creativity. At this juncture, we find ourselves at the deep end of theory.

Given the climate of angst and obsession that percolates in the art of his colleagues, John Miller’s world of brown impasto paintings, reliefs, and sculptures, produced from 1985 to 1994, pop into view as disarmingly happy and full of hilarity. At a safe distance from the emotional spectrum of humiliation, Miller’s works resonate at the level of child’s play. The body itself, particularly the adult body, with its baggage of psychic wounds and scars, seems to be long gone, apparently the victim of a tidal wave of brown that’s mucked everything up, as in Restless Stillness, 1991, which features the remains of a body felled and, Pompeii style, petrified by the stultifying ooze. Presented in a six-foot slab of the hardened crap that looks as if it were cut from a larger debris field, this flashback to utter destruction delivers a vicarious thrill.

Miller’s dystopic reveries propose the worst and best of times simultaneously. Towns and villages, represented by miniature models, have been wiped out by epic mud slides; the horror unfolds over the course of numerous wreckage sites, presented here as heavily rusticated chunks that hang on the wall (like painting) and top pedestals (like sculpture). We’re reminded of many scenes of paralyzing disaster—from real catastrophes (natural or man-made) to Hollywood-engineered spectacles of fantastic destruction. Killer meteorite devastates? Environmental disaster contaminates entire planet? Been there, done that—every summer at the movies, if not in real life.

As consumers of gore as entertainment, we play the role of the survivor. In Miller’s arcade of brown disasters, we walk unscathed past archaeological specimens excised from the once-molten waste flow, as in Topology for a Museum, 1994, a series of six Minimalist-looking cubes “frosted” with specimens of the thick crud studded with evidence of life the way it used to be. The ironic dimensions of this—first a disaster, then a theme park (or a museum? a memorial? art?)—reverberate today in ways we couldn’t have anticipated in the ’80s and ’90s.

Twenty years ago, Miller’s work (and the idea of abjection in general) was grounded in theories of late capitalism and could be read as a critique of mass culture and the institutionalization of art—indeed, Miller was among the leading theorists in the art world of the first polemical wave of postmodernism. We may continue to read discourses of disenfranchisement in his work, but today concerns are quite different. Rather than expose the insidious dimensions of commodification, the bent and boom of contemporary art leans in the direction of “youth culture.” Hand-made, highly crafted, but kind of crappy, quirky, funny, messy, juvenile, and favoring the goth—the formal aspects of art invested in one way or another with adolescence or childhood show a remarkable affinity with Miller’s vintage work. What have kids and critique got to do with one another? On the basis of Miller’s brown art, and its generational recontextualization, the question has officially been opened for discussion.

Jan Avgikos