How does an artist stand out from the crowd? By developing a very special skill set, for one. The pair of exceptional shows now at Howard House showcase two such artists: Sean Johnson, who constructs balancing acts with old furniture, and Mark Takamichi Miller, a master of layered, sculpted, and textured paint. Here to discuss these two exhibitions is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
There’s a gee-whiz factor to the gravity-defying sculptures of Sean Johnson, and that’s both an advantage and a disadvantage. The upside, of course, is that they immediately grab our attention and engage our emotions. Johnson’s balancing acts are so precarious looking that we hardly need the “Do Not Touch” signs the gallery has thoughtfully provided to keep us at a safe distance – we half expect them to collapse at any moment, and perhaps they will; I’m told the artist checks in on a nearly daily basis.
The aesthetic risk of such work is that we’ll stop at the obvious drama, and not go on to the more serious issues that inspired these teetering constructions. Circus and street performers present exciting balancing acts tool; can Johnson move us beyond spills and chills to something more probing?
Not with 'Thank You," perhaps because it’s the least original of the pieces. A lawn chair sits in a small room, suspended a few inches off the ground by several dozen helium balloons. The store-bought balloons each sport a colorful “Thank You!” printed on their shiny Mylar, meant to symbolize the artist achieving lift-off with lots of help from friends, supporters, and family, but the construction rehashes similar lawn chair levitations recently in the news, without referencing or transcending them in a meaningful way; it’s all a bit trite.
Much better is the signature piece of the show, "Family Portrait." Chairs flying with the aid of helium might be old news, but when was the last time you encountered a full-sized divan hovering halfway up a wall, suspended only by a web of 1” packing tape, crisscrossing at the corners? The grey, thrift-store couch (like all the furniture in the show) is strictly down-market. As a family portrait, its dumpy quality suggests a less-than-coddled upbringing, both emotionally (precarious) and economically (hand-me-downs). But if it’s the artist’s family that’s being recollected (I’m told the show is autobiographical), what is represented by the skein of tape that’s doing all the heavy lifting? Here we enter much more interesting territory than that of simple razzle-dazzle. Perhaps the suspension structure is the construct of the artist’s memory (or desire), cherishing the concept of family as some impossible ideal, threatened by the inexorable forces of the Real, the scariest sort of gravitational force. Several strips of tape have lifted off slightly, taking a bit of the wall with them, and reminding us that soon or later it will all end with a crash.
There are equally impressive balancing acts with paired wooden chairs barely resting on a tall wooden post, a joined-at-the-hip loveseat, two teacups perched alarmingly on the edges of a saucer, and a rocking chair cantering drunkenly on top of a whiskey bottle, with a strategically placed cigarette pack providing a hidden counterweight. This last piece, entitled Grandpa, is clearly another sort of family portrait, suggesting that there are worse things in the world than old age, smoking and drinking; clearly that codger could party!
Portraits of quite another sort are the subject of the other exhibition in the gallery, the work of Mark Takamichi Miller. Miller is Seattle’s leading exponent of poured, sculpted, and swirled paint; if he uses a brush at all, you wouldn’t know it. In his many shows at Howard House he has continually pushed the envelope of what we expect paintings to look like, creating a variety of thick, custardy, and molten textures that become the focus of our attention regardless of what is actually being painted. Miller’s early shows were abstract, but more recently he’s used found photos as a point of departure. No matter; it’s all about the paint.
At least that’s what I’ve thought up until now, but with this exhibition, Miller engages with the people he paints in ways I haven’t seen before; the portraits work better as portraits, in other words.
This is particularly true with the four large works in the “Thieves” series, one of two series on view. Based on pictures left behind after a break-in, the images depict shady characters at their leisure, gesturing and imbibing. Miller’s fascination with the underworld is right up there with Truman Capote; he creates an impressive, rather frightening picture of the grotesque: tormented souls, smoldering emotions, and raw nerves. These folks are damaged goods, literally; Miller has applied a blowtorch to a painted set of hands, and there isn’t a simple or smooth surface anywhere to be seen.
Miller starts by projecting from the found photo, which isn’t saying very much; few things are less evocative than the average snapshot. To get beyond the banality of the original imagery, Miller slathers on layers of bizarrely colored and textured paint, leaving out backgrounds and keeping the surrounding canvas bare, alternating opaque and transparent, thick and thin, acrylic and oil, magic marker and glazes.
"Man at a Party," for example, is based on a snapshot of one of our tough guys rather blankly giving the photographer the finger while clutching a bottle with his other hand. His hands, closest to us, are the focal point, built up with paint so thick they are in bas-relief, the surface encrusted , charred (the blowtorch at work), pitted, and coagulated. We instinctively step back a foot or two; with hands like that, who needs a gun? Even scarier is the guy belonging to the hands. His face glowers at us behind a thick transparent mask, a creased landscape of translucent white ridges and valleys like the whorls of a fingerprint – his features look a thousand miles away, beneath the sea. His expression –what we can see of it, anyway – betrays more anxiety than aggression; I’d say he’s looking trapped.
Next to him is a painting of the dog from Hell, a pit bull whose bulbous white eyes are as close to ice balls as it’s possible to get this side of a refrigerator; but the rest of him is transparent – he doesn’t have the complications of his companions, he’s all nerves and muscles.
Less tortured souls get a different treatment, but it’s not simple with them either. The ordinary men and women and children in the "Abandoned" series have been turned into enormous mosaics of flowing – at times quite garish – colors and textures, like a psychedelic version of Chuck Close, complete with paisley. Miller is particularly fond of the marbleized effects that you see on fancy papers; the closer you get to the paintings the more swirls, cul-de-sacs, miniature circuits, frozen beads, and droplets you see: a constellation of all the burdens and pleasures of life, a world of possibilities. " Woman in a Halter Top" is an ice cream sundae of melting cherry, orange, violet, and green, except for her glasses, where Miller has simply stained the canvas with the thinnest veils of bright, watered down paint, letting through the light without adding the weight.
Art, after all, is not reporting. Both of these shows use a strong metaphorical approach (crazy paint; balance) to treat serious issues with wit, insight, and serious chops.