Human Nature: Q & A with Steven J. Miller
On a recent plane ride, I couldn’t help but recall his folk-like imagery of airplanes sailing above mountains, minute in comparison to the power of nature and call of the wild. Miller’s paintings are powerful because of his distillment of reality. Planes hover above a combination of earth and manmade structures, yet somehow feel calming. His use of vivid color planes and flattened space heightens this alternative reality, creating something that sticks with you and makes the world feel a bit more fantastical. - Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Ellen Caldwell: Your work has such a distinct style… How did you get your start?
Steven J. Miller: I was in a professional practice session a few years ago and a presentation was on the big screen. A man was talking about an education project and the screen kept fading back to an image of a neighborhood where the project was being implemented. The presenter stopped the film for a break and froze the image just as the figure was fading into the neighborhood image. For me, this was an Ah Ha! cinemagraphic moment. It looked like two worlds colliding or the present and the past in one image. I knew I had to find a way to paint what I had just experienced so I started experimenting with layering images. The paintings represented in New American Paintings were the result of that experiment.
EC: In your recent NAP feature, you say "I am employing layers of images to talk about time and memory." That is a wonderful sentiment. Can you tease this out a bit more and tell me more about your subject and this relationship?
SJM: In the painting, “No Single Current,” I am alluding to the multiplicity of world views at any given time and the divisions it can create. In this case, science is going one way and religion another. The veiled background represents the history of ideas and conflicts. In “Banking,” it is time reversed. The natural world came first represented by the islands in the foreground; in the future, skyscrapers appear mimicking those natural forms. The airplane symbolizes the time between the two, a time machine of sorts.
EC: The interplay between humans (and their technology) and nature (and its technology too in a sense) is really fabulous. What first led you to this subject?
SJM: It is difficult to remember when I wasn’t interested in making connections between natural systems and cultural systems. For me, it is a big story. More than any other animal, humans have been using natural resources to create first simple tools and later complex machines. Natural systems have long been an inspiration for technological development. I am also interested in environmental issues, how nature and culture interact and affect each other. My painting “Frozen Wave” is a good example of this. In the piece “Outcroppings,” I create visual pattern by bumping nature and culture up against each other.
EC: Your style is distinct, yet seemingly familiar too. What art do you draw upon and how does it inspire you?
SJM: Japanese art has been a big influence. I’m drawn to their use of perspective that often looks down from above and flattens out the space and how the clouds open to reveal a scene. I love how the artist Utomaro balances object with emptiness. All these influences can be seen in my painting, “Fish and Fowl.” I appreciate Neil Jenning’s mid-career work for its subject matter, color, and formal design. Finally, Alexis Rockman, who does lush bold paintings about the environment inspires me to continue in the direction I’m going.
EC: You have a couple of upcoming shows in 2012. What themes and subjects are you exploring and do they depart from your current work?
SJM: The ideas that I have been discussing will be reflected in those pieces but I am also interested in human relationships. In my last show at Conduit, I was painting beautiful natural environments that also included destructive human activities. The painting “Cargo Ship and Pirates,” which will be in the Conduit show, reflects that interest.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.