“There is something dreamlike about the points that provide a view of the other side, but they belong not so much to the dreamtime as to dream work. The nomads enter the dreamtime not by setting off on some extraordinary, dangerous voyage, but through their everyday, ambulatory movement.” -Cesar Aira, “Ghosts”
I have been thinking about Maren Miller’s exhibition, Long Gone, for the last few weeks. When I begin to write about it, I pause, get lost in thought and forget about writing. Until this week, I had not yet found the framework with which to formalize my intuitive reactions.
What I saw: Across the street from The Hills Esthetic Center, stands a Juvenile Detention Center; Hills does not have a doorbell. A friendly face let me in after I called the prescribed telephone number. On my way up the stairs, several young men passed on their way out. For an old werehouse it was surprisingly warm inside. The steel stairs had been recently painted red. On the second floor, I walked through a wide hallway, went into one of many doors on the right and entered a welcoming living space. In the subsequent kitchen, a content-looking cat greeted me. It was polite—not overly friendly; it seemed to enjoy its hostly duties. The ceilings were at least 16 feet overhead and comparable windows bathed the room in light. There was a second room inside of this kitchen. Inside that second room hung Maren Miller’s exhibit, Long Gone.
Miller builds architectural spaces with simple lines. I wanted to see if I might do the same with words.
Above one wall, the wall that the gallery shares with the kitchen, a mirror hung parallel to the floor. That way people in the kitchen could look into the exhibition space and people in the space could look into the kitchen. When I looked up, I was comforted by the domestic action of pots and pans on the other side of our common wall. They gave me more confidence in the clean, white room and periodically my eyes returned to the mirror, for a small, grounding break.
The show: Primarily red and blue and black and white. There is a sense of humor in the work and motifs refract through different pieces in an almost narrative arc: a labyrinth on a wood panel is akin to a snake-like canvas line, which is similar to a stream of paint that spills on a table that stands on a floor which, again, is reminiscent of the labyrinth. A chair covered in a tarp seat cover is the only three-dimensional presence other than myself. The chair beneath the tarp is intuited rather than seen and such considerations lean a little on the experience of my own physical presence. Behind the chair, a picture of a window is covered by a pictorial curtain. In another hanging canvas piece, a picture of what looks like text (blocky, reminiscent again of the labyrinth language) is cut off by what could be a curtain, or another very fat snake, or another stream of dripping paint. At the end of the room stands one real window. That window is also curtained by a patterned, unstretched canvas.
Each work in the show withholds something. It is covered by another piece of itself, asking to be uncovered or—in the most plain case of the labyrinth—solved. The motifs themselves are both banal and archetypal—the labyrinth, the snake, the window. Used in the everyday as they are in myth. Nevertheless, unlike their fabled counterparts, Miller’s representations are insolvable; they cannot be uncovered and thus deny the traditional hero his or her epic fulfillment.
The painter is also in the index of archetypes, but Miller’s paintings are not about a heroic painter.
The paintings are not stretched. Instead they hang on limp canvases, abstract, like cartoons of paintings. Other works on panels—the table with the floorboards, and the blue and white labyrinth—are not paintings at all, save for a gessoed background. These boast the illusion of paintings, for on closer inspection, the picture plane is defined by meticulously cut out (possibly electrical) tape. The surface of that tape lays flat, like a second layer of ink in a screen print. Here again, the surface is plastic and impenetrable.
Ghosts: A few days ago a friend quotes a section in Cesar Aira’s book, Ghosts. The book takes place in South America, in the middle of a growing industrial city; it centers on a family living in a high-rise construction site. Everything smells like cement. Halfway through the middle of the book the main character, a 13 year old girl, takes a nap. At this point the whole family is asleep–enjoying a siesta before the evening, when the family will have a party on the roof. Up until this point, the action of the book takes place on a vertical plane as characters laboriously climb up and down half-built stairs. With this collective nap, the author introduces a horizontal axis, describing other human communities and the way their various architectural habitats reflect respective social priorities. In light of that digression, the book’s monolithic skyscraper becomes one of many possible futures. In order to draw that conclusion, however—in order to shift from a vertical axis to a horizontal one, Aira uses dreams as vehicle of shift.
“There are societies in which the unbuilt dominates almost entirely: for example, among the Australian Aborigines. Instead of building, the Australians concentrate on thinking and dreaming the landscape in which they live, until by multiplying their stories they transform it into a complete and significant ‘construction.’ The process is not as exotic as it seems. It happens every day in the western world: it’s the same as the ‘mental city,’ Joyce’s Dublin, for instance….The visible landscape is an effect of causes that are to be found in the dreamtime. For example, the snake that dragged itself over this plain creating these undulations, etc. etc. These curious Aborigines make sure their eyes are closed while events take place, which allows them to see places as records of events. But what they see is a kind of dream, and they wake into a reverie, since the real story (the snake, not the hills) happened while they were asleep.”
In waking, we see the affect of that gesture. In looking at Miller’s work, I see a congress of decisions that took place before me. I cannot penetrate the surface she creates, because I was not present in the process of its creation. Further, the dimension I interpret is a product of my literacy—acquired over years and generations. Obviously this painted space is illusionistic, but its representation has repercussions in the way one regards other schemes of order. It is useful to recognize the myopic trajectory of history and progress—whether that history is about cities and human habitat, or painting or anything in between. Nevetheless Miller’s work is not relativistic. These objects are sure of themselves and concrete. It is my relationship to them that shifts.
I looked at the mirror and saw the pots and pans and the cat was standing on a counter; its tail flicked.
Maren Miller’s work points to the dream state, during which objects are made. Her work creates the affect of space and depth, but in fact remain a surface. We see the affect and intuited depth of her gestures, yet the desire look “beneath,” to capture an intimate relationship (or “truth”) of the work, will remain unsated. She entertains Painting, as a genre, and in my analogy the Painting Genre is like the skyscraper. Massive, towering, lofty. Miller takes a dream in that building, while dreaming a snake with paint on its back undulates over a white wall. Something else stamps architectural lines onto a flat surface, creating dimension in a previously dimensionless space. As I stood there I looked again at the panel with the table and the red paint. The floorboards depicted in the “painting” mirrored those on the floor under my feet. I turned towards the literal curtain behind me, thinking about the repetitions of mark-making, how that repetition reinforces a world-view. The premises of architecture and art are inherited and built upon.
It was nevertheless with some relief that I pulled back the curtain and saw a street outside. A car drove slowly past the window.
If you want to read another something about Maren Miller and her show at Hills, check out this interview with The Post Family.