Holly Miller: Twist, Bend and Rise…
Continuing my posting of writings previously not “online”, here is my essay for Holly Miller’s 2015 show at Elizabeth Harris Gallery titled:
Holly Miller: Twist, Bend and Rise…
“I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window.… Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” ― Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
From a distance, a painting by Holly Miller would appear to be a straightforward minimalist abstraction. Her compositions are simple; only two or three colors, with white frequently playing a supporting role. The other color or colors, perhaps a pale shade of blue, chrome yellow, cherry red, or mint green, can appear strangely familiar. Think of Vespa scooters, Kitchenaid Mixers, portable turntables, or plastic AM radios. Indeed Miller has spoken of basing her palette on classic industrial design colors from the late 50s and 60s – the time of her childhood in Rome.
A closer inspection of her painting surfaces reveals that Miller has applied the acrylic paint in a series of sure buttery strokes distributed evenly across the stretched gessoed canvas. What was gleaned from afar proves true up close, but there is something unexpected as well: the inclusion of colored thread piercing the canvas and tracing thin lines along the boundaries between colors. Given the color choices, a relationship or at least referencing to the French Support/Surface movement of the late 60s and early 70s might naturally come to mind. And yet, if we figuratively pull on that thread, how easily it leads to an unraveling of assumptions and takes us in unexpected directions.
Looking at Bend #13, 2014, we see a beautiful square painting; the predominant color a luscious, opaque aqua. Covering less than a quarter of the surface area on the painting’s left is a zigzagging boundary of soft white. There is a temptation to mentally assign this white area as a non-color, but it is a specific white and its contrast to the quarter inch of gesso showing around the edges reminds us of this. Mediating the boundary between Miller’s white and aqua, an ever so slightly deeper shade of aqua thread runs in parallel lines on either side of the zigzag, a quarter of the lines on the white side, the rest beginning a move into the aqua area before being stopped, like waves striking a sandbar, by a much
thicker thread forming a do-not-cross boundary line. An overt feminist art statement might be taken as implied, but it is simultaneously belied by the realization that although Miller is working with thread, it is not traditional stitching. Rather than needlepoint, the unbroken long lines of thin fiber, reinforced by their parallel numbers, call to mind fences, levies, and topological maps. Meanwhile, the gaps between the threads, while appearing nominally even, actually vary ever so slightly and prove witness that Miller is measuring by eye alone. The wavering staccato of tiny holes where the threads enter the canvas provide further confirmation of this fact. So great effort is made in pursuit of uniformity, but it is human imperfection that is embraced and highlighted with each action.
In the end, Miller’s use of the thread is almost deceptively simple in the ways it alters how we look at her paintings and expand their potential meanings. As thin as it is, it still reads differently when viewed from the front (as line) versus the side (architecturally). It is a fabric linking the surface and the canvas behind; it tunnels through to the hidden backside of the painting, reminding us that there is a foundation providing support that is equal in size to what is visible, yet remains beyond our sight. It amplifies our awareness that the image is created from a physical reality. And, like the memories of her childhood that are subtly woven into so many of the decisions that make up Holly Miller’s practice, it offers a visual tactility we can see floating before us, but never touch.
Deven Golden 2015