The American artist John Miller is often mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries – such as Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, Stephen Prina and Jim Shaw – though his place within this generation is, on the whole, much less acknowledged than that of his peers. The exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich, the first comprehensive overview in Switzerland of Miller’s work from the 1980s to the present, hinted at possible reasons for this oversight. The pieces on display demonstrate his work’s eclecticism and its refusal to fit into neat aesthetic categories; over the years, the compelling awkwardness of Miller’s practice has made it difficult for critics and curators to categorize or pin down.
The two pieces that greeted the visitor at the beginning of the exhibition play a seminal role in Miller’s oeuvre. Mannequin Lover (2002) represents the generic human form, which has featured repeatedly in his work since 1989. This life-like white male mannequin, adorned with a jet-black wig and casual clothes, could represent a slightly geeky student or a covert symbol of fetishization of the young male body. The reappearance of the mannequin in the form of severed body parts in Miller’s later reliefs and installations from the early 1990s through 2008 emphasize his tendency to work in series and his repeated reuse of a single motif. As this exhibition demonstrated, his appropriation of ordinary objects – plastic fruit, toy weapons, shoes, belts – both underlines their banality and transforms them into unnervingly erotic assemblages.
Serving as an introduction to the survey was the photographic project ‘Middle of the Day’, which Miller has been working on since 1994. Taking a photograph each day between 12pm and 2pm, wherever he happens to be, Miller has covered the entire repertoire of artistic genres. The 1,600 or so unspectacular views – of workers passing through a city square on their lunch break, of diners at a restaurant – indirectly but relentlessly question our relationship to work and leisure, the value of time and the artist’s role in society. Although it could be read as a post-Conceptual, diaristic focus on the life of the artist, ‘Middle of the Day’ is also a poignant reminder that the meaninglessness of the everyday ultimately cannot be adequately depicted.
The human desires that can be submerged within the banal are also the theme of Miller’s sculptures and reliefs assembled from found objects on panels and coated with a thick paste-like layer of paint. In recent years, the artist’s signature paint colour, ‘John Miller brown’ (a term coined by critic Peter Schjeldahl in 1990), for which he became widely known in the 1990s, has been partly replaced by imitation gold leaf. Evoking Freudian associations with excrement and money respectively, the brown and gold objects create a strange contradiction: because the mass of shells, swords and shoes are rendered amorphous, we’re compelled to focus on their forms rather than their functions. A number of related works experiment more obviously with the sculptural potential of banal objects. For example, in Bread, Pure Bread (1994) a miniature, brown-painted plastic horse crowns a rubbish bin resting on layers of plastic spheres and buckets. Houses from model railway sets play a key role in Miller’s manipulations of scale, in particular in The Absence of Myth (2003), where it emerges only gradually that the hilly landscape of the model railway is, in fact, moulded on top of a replica of a prostrate female figure half-submerged beneath it.
This survey emphasized Miller’s skill at assimilating different formal–aesthetic constructs so neatly that the visitor was in danger of overlooking his process of critically undermining them. Included are several of the figurative paintings he made during the 1980s which combine the tradition of West Coast painting with contemporary motifs, such as the hippy with afro hair and kaftan, or girls in bikinis at a rock concert. Other imagery, such as a doll perched on top of a long staircase or boulders piled high in an idyllic setting, indicate Miller’s gleeful and highly intelligent debunking of the apparatus of art by refusing to conform to the tradition of finding new or meaningful subject matter. Significantly, as the artist’s commentary shifted in the 1990s from art history to social trends, so his style of painting changed from nervy, gestural brushstrokes to the smooth, pastel surfaces he employs to depict television game shows. The brown-painted figures with typical cartoon-strip faces in the most amusing of the works here, Family Feud (1995), appear to be collaged onto the graphic background of the set.
The most impressive part of the exhibition was the installation Refusal to Accept Limits (2009), which Miller created especially for this show. Occupying the largest space and resembling a theatrical set, it was composed primarily of architectural fragments such as altars, obelisks, steps and columns. Recalling archaeological sites, the metaphor could be extended to the remains of Pompeii, the ash coating everything that was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius replaced here by the layer of sickly-sweet John Miller gold.