"The magic black of an open barn door on a really sunny summer day, when you just cannot see into it."
On ViewFamous Accountants
April 30 – June 5, 2011
When I first saw Matthew Miller’s portraits at a group show at Centotto, I thought they seemed to combine aspects of northern Renaissance portraiture and Mexican black velvet paintings. The surfaces of his subjects’ skin are earth-toned and sealed off, showing hardly a trace of the brush, yet glowing with a diffuse, muted light. It was instructive, then, to see Miller’s solo show at Famous Accountants this month, consisting solely of self-portraits. In focusing on the subject of himself, Miller also allows the viewer to trace a healthy amount of 20th century existentialism in the artist’s puckered expression, furrowed brow, and deep-socketed eyes, like an Egon Schiele laying bare his own wasted body. This is New York Existentialism, though less absinthe, more anxiety.
Miller employs no background other than a layered, Rembrandt-like blackness, nor do his subjects wear clothes. In the five self-portraits at Famous Accountants, Miller faces in all directions, like a flock of nervous storks. The only real variation in his appearance is in the degree of hair: I say “degree” because the portraits range from a reasonably full pelt to a bald head, with stages in between. When I entered the gallery it was, in fact, not immediately clear to me that they were self-portraits: not because they are all very different from one another, but because there is a certain sameness to all his subjects. There is always that same monochrome, deeply beige skin quality (even in the portrait of an African-American man at the Centotto show), and the same underlying watchfulness-verging-on-panic in their expressions. The gaze is slightly inward even when looking out. If portrait painters like Holbein or Cranach used that type of intense gaze to convey an intelligence, a mind—an Erasmus or Thomas More—Miller seems to be conveying a nervous thought process endlessly repeated.
Apparently, Miller builds his surfaces layer upon layer, sometimes covering them over entirely, then building them up again. I’m not sure if this is an old studio technique or his own invention; certainly the faces lack the feeling of freshness and vivacity that a Renaissance painter would have wanted to evoke, that sense of opening out to the viewer like a ripe peach. Instead, Miller’s portraits turn inward, and this slightly deadened quality of their surfaces is what makes them really contemporary. The absence of background detail and clothing, the inability to “read” the paint or the process of the painter, causes the viewer to focus on the expression of the faces alone. In other words, the emotion of the faces seem present and real, but the surfaces are so laden with art historical freight that it is almost too much for them to carry. The depth of his black shadows are, as the title suggests, such that their traces disappear under the skin but leave a ghostly presence; a presence that is in fact a visual metaphor for this same ghostly urban anxiety.