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Justin Miller: Mutations
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
While many artists look to science for inspiration because of its dissimilarity, Justin Miller, Assistant Professor at the University of Saint Francis, has a more nuanced approach to its integration, and a more complex relationship to its application. Miller grew up on a horse farm in rural Illinois, seeing animal husbandry firsthand, as well as many of the grotesque examples of the natural world. These early experiences laid dormant for many years as he found his passion for the arts, which began to form in more serious ways during his undergraduate and first graduate degree both with Eastern Illinois University. It was through this education, and during his second graduate degree at Notre Dame, that Miller refined the formal aspects of his work, giving it a both pop and surreal sensibilities.
Being represented by Zg Gallery in Chicago, having shown his work in dozens of legit exhibitions, and both winning awards (including Chicago's New City "Top Five Pick") and being published multiple times makes Miller one of Fort Wayne's most established and esteemed visual artists. Miller's relative youth in art terms allows him the potential to achieve a great name for himself if the next decades continues to favor him.
Justin Miller's aesthetic focuses more on the interaction between knowledge and the manmade, and the natural world, which are many times less than obvious transitions which include logic breaks and fantastic contributions. The bulk of Miller's inspiration comes from a constant study of bio-mimicry; other studies which in Miller's terms, "…close the gap between science fictions and science-fact”; and his memories of the horse farm he grew up on. Many of these interactions between Knowledge and Livestock were based solely on commercial purposes, ironically cheapening their meaning in many ways, and drawing them out of the idyllic "living on the land" mentality. Miller takes this fleshed out metaphor and brings it into a full blown dystopia of mutants, pathetic cyborgs, clones gasping for air as their burnt out genes fail them, and sterile worlds, meant to be places for science, wiping out the world around it promoting more sterility.
These mutations are widespread in Miller's work, and create the vocabulary for diagramming his imagery. Many concepts come back from painting to painting, including the use of pins and needles piercing any and everything, metallic tentacles, sweating, oozing flesh, testicular and fungal forms, winding tubes, and vacant eyeballs. The majority of Miller's major pieces are set against solid, candy painted colors, or on top of colorful spectrums and simple landscapes. Miller is not trying to represent specific ideas through each painting as much as reinforcing the need for restraint when adjusting the variables and piercing the equilibrium created by nature. Miller's work is a culmination of failure, and an exposition of error. His images are misfits which would surely have failed early if left to nature's devices. "I approach my work by imaging the experiments that have gone awry and try to create a world where the byproducts resist expiration. " These feeble, mash-up, mangled creatures are heaving themselves through the torture of life in a near existential answer to the capitalistic despair which created them.
In pieces like "Green Space", Miller combines a number of his key visuals into the mix by placing an island of vegetation, fungi, and big, fleshy, transgenic, cyborg in the middle of flat gray plane, supported by a pantone rainbow, and flanked by a chartreuse sky. The mutant in this particular image has glassy eye-like baubles adorning most of its crest, but also wears a mechanical antenna, a few mushrooms, and a number jewel-topped pins. Amongst the tentacles dragging out of its posterior, the mutant also has an tube and funnel extending out into the void which acts as environment, excreting palpable black oil. "Green Space" is a fairly recent painting, in 2010, and one of the first to include an oil pipe, which acts to reinforce the concept that these creatures fly in the face of rationality, controlled environments, and any clear method.
In addition to large paintings which highlight the general concept of a bastardized version of the scientific method, Miller also creates anachronistic mutants which share the spotlight in early twentieth century photographic remnants. In these pieces, like "War Changes a Man", Miller references the ways in which we use technology to change ourselves, treating humanity the same way that we treat other species. Because of the scale and appropriative techniques involved, Miller's vintage photo pieces may seem to be more flippant than others, but they also carry very introspective and intimate aspects which are not found in his large paintings. "War Changes a Man" was originally a photo of a man in his military uniform, flanked by his parents, in a sentimental image of pride in country and family. Miller skews this image by painting over the mans face and adding a globular, purplish, glassy-eyed head, equipped with a long funneled proboscis, and a jade colored halo. Effortlessly, Miller creates an image which suggests the long history of human torture and manipulation through military efforts including agent orange, mustard gas, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the hundreds of citizens who return from the military disfigured in one way or another.
Under the carnival color, cheeky humor, and rather gross exterior, Justin Miller's body of work is an enticing foray into the ever growing realm of human folly and interaction between man and nature.
Miller's work promotes the tempering of our will while not making the normal moral pleas for an end to the interactions causing a natural turmoil. His ability to create characters and a convincing narrative to propel this non-moral critique commands respect. Thankfully, we can count him as a part of our growing arts community, and he can continue to influence University of Saint Francis students each semester.
For more information on Justin Miller, check out www.bluecanvas.com/j51loco